The California government is on the verge of shutting down a small Christian school following a BuzzFeed News investigation detailing accusations that officials failed to report abuse and punished kids who expressed that they were gay or bisexual.
Attorneys for the school, River View Christian Academy, argue the state law that California’s government is using to regulate the facility infringes on its religious rights, and filed a lawsuit in March challenging the statute’s constitutionality. But court documents from the ongoing legal battle between the state and River View not only corroborate many of the details of the BuzzFeed News investigation but also raise new concerns about the treatment of students currently enrolled at the school.
River View is located in a remote area of the mountains outside of Redding in Northern California. The school bills itself as a place where parents can send kids who “are going down the wrong path.” It’s run by a small nonprofit called Teen Rescue, which emphasizes that it holds socially conservative views. The school said that it doesn’t employ any psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, nurses, or social workers, and students say there are no teachers on staff.
Court documents reveal the California Department of Social Services received several complaints over the past decade about River View, but it wasn’t until after a BuzzFeed News article in September 2018 that the state got enough information to take action. According to nearly two dozen women who attended and worked at River View and spoke with BuzzFeed News, staff restricted students’ communication with parents, took kids off of antidepressants cold turkey, prohibited girls from speaking for days or weeks at a time, failed to report allegations of abuse, and disciplined students for attempting to kill themselves.
Officials with the Social Services Department started interviewing former River View students after the story was published, and called the school posing as a parent interested in enrolling their child at the facility to get more information. The state got a warrant to raid River View in January and sent a team of 16 California Highway Patrol officers with two K-9 units and 17 social workers to the campus. According to state records obtained by BuzzFeed News, the department had evidence that River View staff members stored handguns and AR-15–style rifles on campus.
State officials interviewed 29 current students who raised many of the same issues first detailed in the BuzzFeed News story — and added more concerns, according to court documents. The students claimed they couldn't call 911 if they had to report an emergency or abuse, were forced to stand outside at night in the cold for a half hour if they misbehaved, and had their shoes confiscated. Students reported to the state agents that they'd been forced to eat only peanut butter sandwiches for up to six months at a time as a punishment. At least two students told state investigators that when they were physically sick, staff members gave them essential oils or "home remedies" instead of traditional medical care, according to sworn declarations filed by the state. In one declaration, a Department of Social Services official stated that at least two children said they told River View staffers they wanted to kill themselves but weren’t allowed access to a counselor because they had not "earned [behavior] level C."
River View staffers refused to speak with investigators during the raid on the orders of the founder and owner, Phil Ludwig.
Kevin Snider, the top lawyer for the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative group defending River View and Ludwig, told BuzzFeed News that the school plans to file papers in court later this month to refute the California government’s allegations.
While River View maintains it is a Christian boarding school, the paperwork that parents must sign — which is now part of the court record — stipulates that it is a program for “at-risk youth and [River View’s] first priority is dealing with core issues of oppositional behavior.” Whether students graduate out of River View’s program is based on behaviors, not academics.
The California Department of Social Services determined that "youth's rights are likely being violated and that [River View’s] staff engage in conduct that is a risk to the health, welfare or safety of youth in care," agents stated in two sworn declarations. Because the staff controlled every aspect of the children’s lives on campus, it needs a community care license. The state began to fine River View $200 a day in April. After River View failed to pay the fines, the California attorney general’s office filed a complaint in court asking a state judge to order the school shut down because Ludwig told the government he refused to license the facility through the Social Services Department.
River View said that in order to comply with new state regulations, it would have to violate its owners’ religious convictions, which treat being gay as a sin. California enacted a new law in 2016 that bans facilities like River View from making efforts to "eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex," and requires them to submit documentation to the state showing that employees had been trained in LGBT sensitivity. The state argued in court filings that the law doesn’t mention religion — just that the staff would have “to be trained in cultural competency and sensitivity on LGBT issues.” And since River View is private and takes no public funding, the state notes it can turn away any student.
Private facilities for troubled teens like River View are not subject to any federal regulations. Since River View opened its doors in 1993, known then as Julian Youth Academy, it has only had to file an affidavit with the California Department of Education. There is no requirement that private schools in California employ teachers or undergo any kind of inspection. It’s unclear if River View has any accreditation, and Snider didn’t answer when asked if the school had those credentials.
The lack of regulation before California’s new law was enacted in 2016 is part of why the state couldn’t do anything when it received complaints about River View.
In January 2010, the Social Services Department received a complaint alleging that River View used “extreme measures of discipline” on kids, including putting them in isolation, withholding food, and using shock collars, according to a declaration filed in court. The department received another complaint a year later and tried to visit the campus, but Ludwig wouldn’t let state officials on the property. At the end of 2011 — after a former student turned staff member secretly delivered her own baby and then left the child for dead on campus — the department got a warrant to inspect River View, but nothing came of it.
Two more complaints came to the state in 2012, one from a mother who reported that her daughter was discharged without warning and that the school tried to send her home by bus. The other came from a clinician at a mental health facility in Redding who told the Department of Social Services that one River View student attempted suicide twice at the facility and had extensive cut marks on each of his arms, according to a declaration from the state. The student was adamant he would hurt himself again if he was sent back to the school, and he was eventually hospitalized and sent out of state to another facility. Social service agents interviewed students at River View’s campus that fall, but officials believe that the kids had been coached on their answers.
The next time the Social Services Department got a complaint about River View was in March 2015, when a girl at the campus reported that she was sexually abused and strangled by another client at the facility, according to a declaration. The department tried to inspect the campus but staff again wouldn’t let social services agents on the premises. It closed the case and marked it “inconclusive.”
Things went quiet until September 2018, when BuzzFeed News published an investigation into River View. By this point, California had a new law allowing for more regulation of schools for troubled teens, which was passed after a state senator learned about the treatment of students at River View and other facilities.
Ludwig has said he’s been careful to make sure the school is set up in a way to avoid state oversight. He argued in a declaration in court that the school is transparent with parents.
Parents must fill out a questionnaire about their child when they enroll them at River View, according to a copy revealed in court filings. It asks about things like whether the kid listens to rap or heavy metal music, if they are suicidal, whether they’re sexually active, and if they have mood swings or an eating disorder. Parents also have to sign an agreement not to try to remove their child early unless River View’s staff approves. The same agreement also stipulates that if their kid runs away, River View staffers won’t go looking for them.
Ludwig said in a court filing that he is “extremely concerned and fearful” the state will show up at River View with Child Protective Services to remove students from campus, and destroy his 25-year-old school. ●