According to findings in a state investigation, the girl’s forehead was anointed with oil, a religious verse was recited and the teen was told she would have to be a Christian, or at least denounce Satan, to continue living in the home. Crosses then were handed out to the other girls to wear.
Courage House founder Jenny Williamson later would explain that the girl had multiple personalities and posed a danger to herself and others. “She worshipped Satan, and she practiced animal and human sacrifice,” she told The Sacramento Bee in August.
Williamson told regulators in a June 18 memo responding to the state’s unannounced visit that the girl had been the victim of satanic ritualistic abuse and told staff she had “participated in human sacrifice when she was an alter personality.” Williamson said the girl terrified staff by announcing that “this week was a blood sacrifice week.”
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The California Department of Social Services did not accept the group home’s explanation and issued Courage House a “Type A” citation, the most severe penalty for violations considered serious enough to have an immediate impact on clients’ health, safety or personal rights.
In its investigation, the state found that the girl had an interest in satanism but did not threaten to perform sacrifices and, instead, had “made a general statement that she enjoyed drawing some of the images” of satanic practice, a state licensing official wrote.
Courage House appealed the citation twice, losing again in November, arguing in its appeals documents that the state’s investigation was “grossly inadequate” and that “the resident was adamant that she wanted to pray to become a Christian.” In addition, her condition left her with frequent amnesia, preventing her from being able to recount “full events,” two Courage House officials wrote Oct. 6 in their second appeal to the state.
“There was never any pressure given, or ultimatums discussed with her,” wrote former program director Melissa Herrmann and clinical director Angela Chanter, who participated in the episode. “She was told she could not perform human and animal sacrifices, or drink the blood of any person there, but she was never told she could not worship Satan nor was she told she had to become a Christian.”
The clash underscores the tension that can arise between faith-based service providers and government officials – each held accountable for the health and safety of vulnerable clients.
Over the last decade, child sex trafficking has become a hot-button topic, spawning new programs and multiple new funding streams. Christian organizations in particular have rallied to the cause, organizing conferences, engaging communities and embarking on worldwide missionary work.
Some Christian-based groups, such as Courage House and its nonprofit parent organization, Courage Worldwide Inc. of Rocklin, have gone a step further, establishing their own facilities to house and treat young victims.
As the new year approaches, the once-vaunted program is struggling to reopen its Northern California facility for six girls, ages 11 to 17, while undergoing scrutiny from the state – including accusations it has violated children’s right to religious freedom.
Because Courage Worldwide accepts government money – $9,100 a month per child at the time the group’s Sacramento-area home closed in June – the program must stay within regulatory boundaries and not favor one religion over another, or press children to participate. If it is able to reopen, it would be eligible for about $12,000 a month per girl under a new state system in effect next year.
Courage Worldwide officials maintain they have found the appropriate balance.
“State funds do not mean you cannot be a Christian home – state funds and license mean you cannot force a child to practice any religious ritual, and Courage House does not,” said Gil Stieglitz, a board member for Courage Worldwide Inc. and pastor at Bayside Church in Roseville, in an emailed response.
From the time Courage Worldwide opened its Sacramento-area group home in 2011 on 52 acres north of the city, the organization has been steeped in Christian beliefs and practices, according to a Bee examination of state licensing records, dozens of internal Courage Worldwide emails and interviews with 17 former employees, business associates and a former client. The group opened a second Courage House around that same time in the east African country of Tanzania that it says now has 12 beds.
Over and over, Williamson has publicly recited the story of how God spoke to her in church and directed her to build a home for her “daughters.” The organization’s major benefactors – and recruiting grounds for volunteers and donations – have included Christian churches in the Sacramento region and other states.
Email exchanges in 2012 among corporate executives, obtained from a source, show spirited and sometimes frenetic discussions about “demonic attacks” on the girls and the “spiritual warfare” necessary to counter the threat.
“October is a hideous month where the evil one is worshipped daily by his followers and those on our team (and some of our girls in Africa and Nor Cal) that have come out of SRA or witchcraft (satanic ritual abuse) are experience (sic) relentless demonic attacks,” employee Stephanie Midthun wrote in an October 2012 email to staff.
Midthun and her husband, Joel, are key figures in the Courage Worldwide organization. Joel, the pastor of Elk Grove’s Living Water Church, is on the board of directors. Stephanie has served in various roles since 2008, including creative director, chaplain, spiritual adviser and community relations director.
A July 2011 email Williamson sent to her staff and supporters warned: “We are at war! We are under great attack and need your prayers ... If you have a personal relationship with the girls – any time this week – morning, noon, afternoon evening please go out to Courage House to pray and prophecy over them, please, please do so!”
In a March 2012 email, Herrmann, the former program director, discussed the possibility of taking a young client being discharged from a hospital directly to a hotel room in Elk Grove “while she goes through a more intense deliverance and prayer process before transitioning her back” to Courage House.
For years, Williamson has touted an ambitious expansion plan for Courage House Northern California that includes as its centerpiece a shimmering chapel with a large cross, according to architectural renderings. The architect’s plan, which also envisions 10 new cottages for 60 girls, describes the chapel “as the most important building on the campus.” Despite aggressive fundraising around those plans – and a $300,000-plus kick start in 2011 from Bayside Church – the organization has yet to break ground.
She was told she could not perform human and animal sacrifices, or drink the blood of any person there, but she was never told she could not worship Satan nor was she told she had to become a Christian.
Courage House officials, in response to state citation
Williamson and other Courage Worldwide officials vehemently deny there is any pressure to practice Christianity at Courage House, and said that girls are free to attend services of their choice as staffing levels permit.
“We are in full agreement with the state to provide access to religious services when the girls request it, if provided sufficient notice in advance so that we can properly staff for such requests,” Courage Worldwide officials said in an emailed statement to The Bee.
The state licensing file includes a sample of a “Courage House religious participation form,” which allows girls to check a box indicating their preferences. Choices range from no participation to weekly church services to worship nights and other spiritual events.
Even so, the state leveled a Type B citation against Courage House in December 2015, finding that the girls were required to attend the Midthuns’ church – a concern shared by some staff members.
DeAnne Brining, a former therapist at the home, said the girls felt awkward and conspicuous at the church because the congregation knew who they were. “The girls did not want to be known as Courage girls,” she said. “Everybody at that church knew they were trafficked.”
Courage Worldwide officials disputed the state’s findings, telling The Bee the Elk Grove church was the girls’ “consensus choice.”
The citation was the first of two issued to Courage House by the department’s Community Care Licensing Division for violating children’s religious freedom. That in itself is unusual: Citations regarding religious freedom are so rare in California group homes that only nine other group homes out of 1,500 statewide – regardless of size – have been written up for this violation in the last five years, according to an analysis of statewide data, which includes facilities that operated during this period but are now closed.
Courage Worldwide’s conflicts with the state have extended beyond matters of religious freedom. In the last five years, Courage House has been cited 36 times for regulatory violations, according to the data released to The Bee in early December. That’s more than three times the average for citations at the 300 facilities statewide of similar size and classification level.
Only 14 facilities in California of similar size and classification logged more citations during that period.
Courage Worldwide officials, in their emailed response, noted that while some deficiencies have been about policy, others involved “paperwork issues.”
“No deficiency has been over an issue that the state viewed as serious enough to shut our facility, as it has at other facilities,” the email stated.
‘Battle worship’ and witchcraft
A former life coach and motivational speaker, Williamson founded her nonprofit a decade ago, originally under the name Courage To Be You Inc. The organization started with a social mission of empowering people to “fulfill their God-given purpose,” then refocused in 2008 to sex trafficking, eventually changing its name to Courage Worldwide to reflect its global aspirations.
In recent years, the organization has gained favor in Sacramento’s philanthropic community, collecting millions in donations while promoting the grandiose vision of expansion.
This year, though, the organization’s fundraising practices uncorked a controversy when Williamson and her board quietly decided to close the Northern California facility, a move they say is temporary. The four remaining girls were given seven-day notices and the home closed June 13, with most of the staff laid off over the summer.
The organization told regulators in June it needed a temporary “pause” to prepare for next year’s overhaul in how the state handles placements of troubled youths, which aims to phase out long-term group homes in favor of more family-based care.
However, Courage Worldwide made no public announcement about its pause and continued to actively solicit money. The Bee’s investigation into Courage House and its closure prompted several major donors to withdraw or curtail their pledges.
From the start, the organization has been open about the role Christianity plays in its mission, and its reliance on fundraising from churches. The Courage Worldwide website now includes a blog post entitled, “Churches are Rising Up to Stand with Courage Worldwide” that lists 25 pastors supporting the group.
Documents and emails obtained by The Bee illustrate how staff operations at times have been intertwined with religious pursuits. The Midthuns often were at the center, along with former program director Herrmann, urging prayer sessions and “battle worship nights” to defeat evil.
“We are calling for a corporate fast for Courage Worldwide for the following tuesdays in October (October 9, 16, 23 and 30th) as well as a special ‘Battle Worship Night’ October 31, Halloween night (location TBA),” Midthun wrote to staffers, board members and supporters in October 2012.
Midthun warned of a “strategic attack against our reputation” and the finances of the organization, as well as the private business run by Williamson and her husband, Mike. The email does not explain the source of those perceived attacks.
“We feel the only way to reverse these spiritual battles or assignment against CWW is on our knees in prayer and working as hard as we can,” Midthun wrote.
Stieglitz of Bayside Church conducted one such service at the group home, according to an email a week later.
“Dr. Gil led the leadership of Courage Worldwide in prayer at Courage House to battle the demonic strongholds at the home in Nor Cal and we all sensed it was very much connected to all over our homes,” Midthun wrote. “We came together on our knees with confession and communion, with prayers, tears and worship to battle for our home, our staff and the girls. We sensed a breakthrough in the spirit.”
In February 2012, Herrmann announced that Midthun and her husband, Joel, had been appointed as “Courage House Spiritual Directors” and that staffers should “pray for extra protection, strength, discernment AND that God would continue to reveal himself to all the girls at Courage House!”
Courage House also offered to underwrite the cost of prayer sessions with a pastor it brought in for “individual prayer counseling sessions with staff, volunteers, families and our girls!” according to a January 2012 email from Herrmann with the subject line “Pastor Joe Appointments.”
“Pastor Joe normally charges $100 for individual prayer counseling sessions,” Herrmann wrote to staff. “Courage to Be You is willing to cover 25% of the cost of an appointment with Pastor Joe.
“Please pay the $75 to him directly …”
The fight against evil also extended to Courage Worldwide’s home in Tanzania, where Courage House officials wrote in an Oct. 24, 2012, email after a trip there that the girls “are still experiencing a lot of demonic attacks.”
“During this trip we have found out quite a bit about some significant amount of witchcraft that was done on the property previously over a number of years (prior to Courage House). We have also been spending time praying with the girls and brought in some local experts in the area of witchcraft to help pray with them individually.”
A prayer for rescue
Even former employees of Courage House who identified themselves as people of deep faith said they viewed the corporate culture as overbearing and some of its practices as inappropriate for the girls.
Arlicia Lorentty, a former social worker at Courage House, said the organization’s religious convictions initially were part of the attraction to work there, but that she later came to believe Williamson was “misusing faith” with her dramatic fundraising appearances aimed at “pulling at people’s heartstrings.”
“As a person who is a Christian, and very much believes God has a heart for this population, I don’t think this is what he meant,” said Lorentty, who left in 2015.
“The use of God’s name for fundraising – that’s the other part that really, really bothers me,” she said. “… She’s exploiting our faith, she’s exploiting these people’s generosity.”
Several former staff members said that the religious intensity continued as the organization grew – along with its pool of government contributions.
Today, Courage Worldwide boasts on its website that its therapeutic trauma program for girls is administered by psychologist Benjamin Keyes of Regent University, a private school in Virginia founded by conservative Christian minister and broadcaster Pat Robertson. Courage Worldwide explains that the program is a “Christian therapeutic model” known as Healing Emotional Affective Responses to Trauma (H.E.A.R.T.)
Lauren Conklin, who worked at Courage House for four years, said she was uncomfortable with some of her bosses’ expectations. At one staff meeting last year, she said, Williamson wanted to wash her employees’ feet, symbolic of Jesus’ gesture to his disciples.
“I said ‘no,’ ” she said.
Linda Fiore, the group home administrator at the time the home closed, said she was not at work when the ritual with the oil and crosses occurred. But she said she attended a staff meeting later at which Courage House officials recounted the event and described their success at driving out evil forces.
“I was just shocked,” said Fiore, who went out on medical leave in June and later was laid off. “It was very uncomfortable just being there.”
As a person who is a Christian, and very much believes God has a heart for this population, I don’t think this is what he meant ... She’s exploiting our faith, she’s exploiting these people’s generosity.
Arlicia Lorentty, a former social worker at Courage House
Faith-based groups in California and elsewhere are continuing to forge relationships with government to help sex-trafficking victims. Many say they are well aware of the boundaries.
Last year, officials announced that the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office was teaming up with Catholic Charities of the East Bay to create a safe home in the Bay Area for girls recovering from sex trafficking. Mary Kuhn, Catholic Charities communication director, said the home is “on path” to open in 2017 and will seek to become licensed by the state.
“It will be our obligation to meet those requirements,” she said.
“We do not discriminate. Our services are not about proselytizing,” she said. “Our services are about meeting the needs of people.”
Mandy Porter, who coordinates a faith-based alliance to help trafficking victims, said Christian groups and volunteers must be extremely careful not to thrust their faith upon this population, or be perceived as trying to control or manipulate them.
“The idea of choice is so important when treating a trafficking victim because they’ve had so many choices taken away,” said Porter of the Faith Alliance Against Slavery and Trafficking. “… We don’t want to be another form of coercion, another thing they have to do in order to belong.”
Courage House officials say they believe they are in good standing with the state, and that they’re working to reopen in early 2017. Fundraising efforts continue.
A Dec. 9 fundraising letter posted on the Courage Worldwide website and sent to supporters includes a “giving card” that asks recipients to make a choice: a one-time financial gift; a set monthly contribution; or a commitment to “praying for more children to be rescued out of sex trafficking.”