Editor’s note: This story was initially published in 2014, but we are posting it because the topic is still relevant. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in September that will regulate the “troubled teen” industry.
By Pamela Powell, Special to Q Voice News
When David Wernsman, a 17 year-old-honor student from Colorado, told his parents he is gay, they hired men to remove him from their home and dump him off at a Dominican Republic-based Christian reform school, Wernsman said.
Wernsman’s story, which begins in 2006, is told in the documentary “Kidnapped For Christ,” which is available on DVD and iTunes.
The film explores the mission and protocol of Esculea Caribe, which functioned under the auspices of Christianity. But what director Kate Logan ultimately reveals is a facility that abuses children to “reform” them or, in Wernsman’s case, cure homosexuality.
Reel Honest Reviews’ Pamela Powell spoke with Wernsman, 26, about the morning he was taken from his Colorado home and transported to the Dominican Republic, his relationship with his parents and his opinion of organized religion.
Q: Describe the night you were taken from your home and taken to Escuela Caribe?
A: I was woken up, it was actually very early in the morning about 5:30. These two guys were standing where I was sleeping. At first I thought they were policemen. ‘You need to get up and we’re gonna go now,’ and I saw my parents standing off to the side, crying, saying, ‘We love you, David. You have to trust these guys and go with them.’
The guy put a belt around my waist. Their were like, ‘This is the belt of trust. If you break this trust, we’re going to handcuff you and take you where we’re going.’ They toted me out of the house to the car. I’m trying to ask him questions like, Where are you taking me?
Suddenly, the other guy comes out the door with a trash bag full of clothes that my parents had hidden and packed for me. I said, ‘You need to tell me where we’re going. Please.’ But he just said something very cryptic, ‘You know, sometimes when a kid is acting out too much, he’s gotta leave.’
So on the way to the airport, I said, ‘You guys need to show me Power of Attorney. I need to see some paperwork or I will contact authorities as soon as we get to the airport.’ So they pull over, and they pull out a document and sure enough it was there. My parents’ signatures, everything.
Q: While at Escuela Caribe, did you ever consider just making a run for it to escape?
A: I would not dare do that. In the local town, they had a prize for kids that they catch running away. They knew what the school was . If they caught a kid that was a runaway from this school, they would get 25,000 Dominican pesos. I mean kids have been returned to this school hog tied with a rifle to their head.
Q: How has your life been since you were released from Escuela Caribe?
A: I got back and finished out my senior year at my high school with my friends which is more than anything I could have ever asked for. I went to college, got my bachelors at Arizona State University. Now I am currently working and working towards getting into med school.
Q: What is your relationship like with your parents? Have they seen the movie?
A: They accept me for who I am. As far as the film goes, when they got notice that the film was going to happen, they got very upset. It has put our relationship in a very strange place, but I mean they don’t want anything to do with the film, and they don’t want to bring up those old issues. I can’t be the one to bring anymore guilt upon them because they already feel guilty. I know that. We just keep civil.
Q: Tell me how the experience has changed your outlook on religion.
A: I typically avoid any sort of organized religion. People expressing their thoughts and opinions about God and that’s an absolutely beautiful thing. I just cannot take part. I’m a very spiritual person, and I believe that God works in much, much different ways than anyone really understands. I’m definitely a believer, but I don’t call myself a Christian anymore.
This interview is an edited version. Powell’s complete audio interview can be heard here.