I am David Wernsman, I was taken by strangers in the middle of the night to a Christian reform program overseas and I'm the main subject of the Showtime Documentary "Kidnapped For Christ" AMA!
**My short bio:
I was sent away by my parents to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic called "Escuela Caribe" when I was 17, after coming out as gay. While I was in the program I experienced and witnessed physical, emotional and spiritual abuse on a regular basis. During my time in the Dominican Republic, a film student named Kate Logan came to shoot a documentary and I became the main subject. Now my story is reaching people around the world and I hope that it can be a part to end abuse in residential programs for teens.
The film has been airing on SHOWTIME and you can check out the trailer at http://www.kidnappedforchrist.com/
Also see our other AMA here: http://redd.it/2asr0q
Thanks for all the great questions, I truly appreciate all the support we've had for this film. If you haven't seen it yet, hope you can catch it on showtime.
Your's truly, David Wernsman
DAVID: My parents are upset about the film in general and want nothing to do with it. They seem to still think the place wasn't bad, but I also think there's a part of them that feels guilty about sending me there. My general relationship with them is good now, and they accept me for being gay. We just never talk about me being sent there, it's tough.
Oh I found some that answered it yes. By the way you are very composed and articulate about the whole thing. So props to you dude.
DAVID: thank you :) I appreciate that.
Hi David I'm a 17 year old lesbian. My birth father who I haven't spoken to in 4 years is attempting to send me to an anti gay camp owned by Aspen Educational group. Heres a shortlink to the thread about the abuse that goes on there http://redd.it/khqo0. Because of what you've been though do you know of any way to avoid it? I can't wait to see the film.
DAVID: Oh my... what is going to prevent you from being sent away? I am not familiar with Aspen Educational group. I don't know a way to avoid it but if it happens, make sure you have a wide group of people who are aware of the circumstances and that you may up and disappear. If so, they'll know where you are and what happened to get you out. My heart goes out to you I would like to help you.
David, it is Jodi with SIA I wanted to say thank you so much for speaking up and having a voice and sharing your experience. It is so important that we break the stereo types of who is actually taken to facilities like this. I get asked this question alot when I talk about Kidnapped for Christ My question for you is what is your life like now, and how has your healing journey been? My other question is, Do you still keep in contact with any you met there?
DAVID: Hey Jodi!!! :) My healing journey has been amplified by the film. It's been living proof that we didn't deserve what they did to us. I don't know about you, but I still hear a voice in my head that's not my own that says "you're a bad person, you've done a lot of bad things." For survivors of similar programs, I hope the film kills that voice as much as it has for me. I do keep in contact with a few, although most are scattered around the country.
We cant change what happened or what we have been through but we have tools to help us learn how to be successful in overcoming, surviving and thriving in spite of what happened to us. This film, has for so many survivors given a voice. We have much more work to do but this documentary is such a huge step in raising awareness and causing change. We are survivors we can thrive and be successful and have happiness in life. I use this saying a lot... We are not what happened to us, we are what we want to become. I think you are a perfect example of that. You are beautiful soul and I am very thankful to know you.
DAVID: Jodi, thank you for your inspiration and leadership, truly. <3
Hi David, welcome to reddit! I started /r/troubledteens to save kids from abuse at programs like the one you were forced to go to. I admire your bravery, both when the film was made and now to continue to open your life up to the public.
My questions are: what made you trust Kate and her crew? You could have been subject to horrific punishment for speaking so honestly to her. And how has your life changed because of the documentary?
DAVID: Thank you :). Great questions - What made me trust Kate & Peter (the crew)...Honestly I took a leap of faith. I was a newer student in the program and wasn't afraid to speak up about what was happening. However, 5 months passed after Kate left while I remained there. After a while I began to worry that it'd all come crashing down on me and that I'd get into trouble. I also began to wonder if Kate was even real. It was frightening. For your second question, my life has changed for the better because of this film. The film is a ultimate reminder that what happened to me there was wrong and I didn't deserve the treatment I received. It's helped me believe in myself and that I'm a good person.
Has your experience changed your religious views?
DAVID: Yes definitely. Religion makes me uncomfortable in general since my experience. Knowing that people did all this in the name of God, it became all too much.
I was raised catholic and I'm not gay but that religion now makes me uncomfortable. People justify a lot of screwed up behaviour because of the perceived greater good and centuries old rules.
DAVID: Couldn't agree with your view more.
Specifically how did they abuse you?
DAVID: Physically they use exercises and pointless labor on a daily basis. We also received swats with a leather strap while bending over a chair. The most extreme was the "quiet room" which they put a kid into solitary confinement. It was a 5x5 tile room with a dirty mattress with a roll of toilet paper and a bucket to relieve yourself in. I never was sent to the "QR" personally because I tried to comply with their rule the best I could. However, I saw several kids be put in there for days or even weeks.
Do you think religion is inherently homophobic or is it just an easy justification/scapegoat?
DAVID: I would say it's an easy scapegoat.
Do you still maintain contact with your parents and how did your life work out after leaving the camp?
DAVID: I went back to my parents after the program. They accept me for who I am and wanted everything to just move on. Talking about the program ends badly when something about it gets brought up. As far as my life in general - I moved to Arizona, completed undergrad and am in the process of applying to medical school. I did my best not to let the program haunt me.
Nice, good luck in the application!
I am curious about the 'Talking about the program ends badly' - Do your parents dismiss your experiences, what happened and that in their eyes they're not responsible or do they get angry over a mistake they made getting pointed out?
DAVID: I suppose saying they "dismiss my experiences" is the best way to put it. They definitely become angry over it and likely could be a pride issue. They're good people and I don't believe they intended to send me somewhere that was abusive.
What were the kids like that were there, other than yourself? Did some of them seem to have other problems that could have been caused by being at a place like this? I'm a gay psychology major, and every time I hear of something similar to this, I'm both curious and generally sickened.
Was there anything that gave you hope while you were in such trying times? Did you go in expecting anything to happen? How has going to such a place affected your relationship with your god?
Most importantly, where can I buy this film? I really want to see it, but having no cable, I want to support the cause and the movie.
DAVID: Great questions! The other kids there were as diverse as a high school hallway. Kids were sent there for any "problem" such as drugs, running away, arguing with their parents, sexuality, etc. all grouped under this "troubled teen" blanket. One kid was even sent there because he played on his computer too often and listened to Eminem. As far as maintaing hope while I was there...it was rough. Kate, the director played a huge part, as she left me something to believe in when I got out and that I could help people. Honestly as the months went by, hope was hard to grasp. As far as viewing the film, it's currently playing on ShowTime, I think you can get it on demand via their website.
Were you religious in any way before the experience?
DAVID: Yes. I grew up catholic and went to a non-denominational Christian middle school. I identified as Christian before being sent there
I'd just like to add that as a gay, Dominican teenager I'm personally disgusted by the general homophobia across the country. Most of my own cousins bad mouth gays as if they're not even people.
I guess my question is, what do you think should be done to lessen homophobia internationally? I apologize if it's stupid or irrelevant
DAVID: Your question is neither stupid or irrelevant to say the least. To lessen homophobia internationally would be a huge step in global social equity, but what or how to do it, I'm not sure. I think the broadening acceptance of homosexuality in many countries sets the example for many other nations, and that may be a good start. For the UN to take action on homophobia world wide? Yeesh, I think hunger and resources is more pertinent. Nice thought-provoking question.
I haven't seen the show (Don't have Showtime), but I read that you grew up religious. What is your perception of God, not necessarily religion, but God?
I believe God exists. I believe the greater good was Kate coming to film the story. I believe in love, and that's my perception of God.
Hi David, this is David from that non denominational school, do you think your parents were influenced either by the school or their church?
DAVID: I think I know who this is ;). I miss you buddy! I think my parents were influenced by another parent who sent someone there. I'm not totally sure but it wasn't our church. Definitely not our priest at the time. So once they contacted the school, I'm sure the school did their best to reel them in.
DAVID: please message me on FB so I can be sure you're the David I'm thinking of. Thanks!
Hi David! I don't have Showtime so I apologize if this is in the documentary or not. I want to know how this affected your academic life. It seems like you were a smart kid doing well in school. At Escuela Caribe did you get any kind of traditional academic lessons? When you returned to the US, how far behind were you? It seems like this program ruins any chance kids have on going on to college or university since you now have this huge gap in your record. Thanks for doing the AMA and I hope all is well now!
DAVID: Academically I continued on to college and did well. However, prior to being sent there I was working on my International Baccalaureate diploma in high school. I wasn't able to complete that program out of high school and it lowered my GPA slightly having to take normal classes. At Escuela Caribe, the course material was very "home school" like and do-it-yourself. When I went back to my high school after being there, my academic advisory said that none of those credits were worth anything and would only lower my GPA if they were added in.
DAVID: Yes I'm in touch with them. Per Beth's view, I think there's a point at which some individuals feel it's easier to say that the place helped them even though it was basically torture day after day. I also think that if a student was sent there for a possible problem that needed help and they acknowledge that they had some "problem" which they "overcame" at the school, they might believe that. For me, I was sent there for being gay and having a rocky relationship with my parents due to their views. Regardless, whatever "problem" a kid was sent there for, the program's therapy was inhumane, degrading, and abusive.
DAVID: On a side note: I did obtain a few good tools, such as the ability to cut my lawn using a machete...in case my lawn mower breaks. Could be useful. :P
Lots of respect I hope you were able to pull positives from your experience. How betrayed did you feel the first night, have you forgiven your parents truly? Welcome to reddit brotha
DAVID: Thank you! Regarding the first night...yea that was definitely the worst aside from the journey down there, having 2 guys pull me through an airport by a loose belt around my waist. I still get nightmares. Have I forgiven my parents? I try to think so.
wow thats crazy. Were people staring? Did people say anything? Was this a private flight?
DAVID: Oh yes people stared. They moved away as quickly as possible as if I were some juvenile delinquent. We flew commercial.
You could have screamed bomb and they would have taken u to a private room where you tell them you got kidnapped
DAVID: LOL if only...darn it
DAVID: Great questions :) 1. No, I didn't meet another male student who was gay that I was attracted to. However, did make friends with some of the students to help mitigate the programs effects. 2. I tried my best to play along. I moved up quickly in their "level system" and complied just to survive. 3. We were allowed one "email" that was read over before sent to our parents every week, and we were allowed a 10 minute phone call once every 3 months (which was recorded).
What would you say to a kid that finds a brochure for one of these places at home?
DAVID: I'm not sure I understand your question. If a kid finds a brochure at home? As if parents left it lying around or?
As if the parents picked it up somewhere and brought it home, not that the kid was supposed to see it.
DAVID: I'm really not sure. If the kid came to me now, I'd probably lose it due to PTSD. It's not like I could save the kid, parents sign over power of attorney and there's nothing that can be done. The kids rights are stolen.
Buy pepper spray and set an alarm in your room.. Spray the fuckers who try to abduct you and call 911
DAVID: If only... but not even 911 can save you, that's the scariest part.
I can't imagine anyone sending a kid to someplace like this. Even some of my most religious friends were shocked. Can't imagine it all.
My question is: What was the airport like? Could you not call out for help/cause a scene? What would happen if you did? Does anyone try to help/rescue/stop?
DAVID: I wasn't able to fight. They threatened me that if I tried to run they'd handcuff me. I made them show me power of attorney. I was compliant after they handed me the paperwork; I was in tears actually. Kids have fought them, and they were handcuffed, just like they said they would.
DAVID: I'll have to check it out. Thanks for sharing this.
Thank you for doing the AMA, and I commend you for your bravery and compassion.
Are you aware of any real push to make this kind of thing illegal? Is the reason its in the DR because these kinds of practices are illegal in the US? What do you think that says about the people the run it, that they know they'll need to hide it from the american public?
Lastly, how do you feel about the people who run the camp?
DAVID: I am not aware of any real push to make it illegal. I know that some bills have been started but don't believe anything became of them. Yes, I do believe it's in the DR because they are indeed illegal. I think for the people who ran it, it's time to face the truth. There actually have been former staff members (seen in the film) who acknowledge that what was happening there was wrong.
Hi David! I have many questions, What was the church service like in any way? Was it very 'In your face' telling you that being gay was a sin everyday, or did they often switch topics? What kind of emotional abuse did they cause at this camp? Did they allow you to have any free time?
DAVID: Church was very standard evangelical themed. The surmons were always directed under the notion of "you all have done terrible things but you can turn your life around even though your bad people." They never directly addressed homosexuality. Their take on it was that it didn't exist. As far as free time. No. Maybe 10 minutes to "space out" at the end of the night after hours of ridiculous chores.
Hi David! Is it too much to ask exactly how this happened? So first you came out? Then They sent you off? No questions asked? Nothing happened in the time between coming out and getting on board a plane to the DR? Also, how did you family take all this? After you were sent off and after the documentary came out
DAVID: So you're asking how this happened? Hmm well... my parents found out I was gay when I was 16 after they put a keylogger onto the home computer, I was surfing the internet for answers, found some porn (which ALL kids do at one point or another), and was trying to find some sanity or feeling that I wasn't alone... they confronted me about it and I decided to just come out with it and tell them that I was gay. It didn't go over well, I was constantly being sent to therapists who said they'd "help" with my sexuality "issues". Meanwhile I was a 4.3GPA student enrolled in IB/AP classes, involved in everything at school clubs/sports/theatre, never did drugs, and had never been sent to the principals office a day in my life. The day after my junior year (finished my AP English Exam a day prior) 2 guys were at the foot of where I was sleeping and told me I had to leave. [Fast forward] Today, my parents accept me for who I am, however they aren't happy about this film. Hopefully some day they may see how badly they were victims of this cult (program) and that this place was truly hurting kids.
Hi, David. Thanks for doing this.
1) How long were you there in total?
2) How long were you there after you turned 18?
3) Did they make you sign papers after you turned 18 agreeing to stay?
4) Have you considered suing them for keeping you after you turned 18?
5) Considering your experience would you advise other gay youth to keep their mouths shut and not come out until after they were 18?
DAVID: I was there a total of 7 months, was there 1.5months past my 18th birthday. No they didn't make us sign papers, we we're told we couldn't leave. Yes, I've considered suing but timid and unsure about how to proceed...I'm a busy guy. I wouldn't advise gay youth to keep their mouths shut, my story is one of extremes and hopefully by conveying the message and regulating facilities like these, it won't continue to happen.
Just saw the documentary this weekend. I'm so glad someone is trying to bring attention to these programs and the abuse, and even death, that they enact.
Did your treatment at the school change in the seven weeks after people attempted to get you out? What was your life like during that period?
DAVID: GREAT question!!! Yes, the staff became very awkwardly nice; I even achieved an new level there (different topic for another day). Once I knew I was going to be able to go home, I felt the greatest sense of joy and belief that someone WAS out there to help me.
What did you do to keep yourself (for lack of a better term) "sane" while you were there? Were there any instances where you or any of the other kids were unable to handle what was going on, either physically, mentally or emotionally?
DAVID: I kept myself sane by trying to remember that it was only temporary (even though I never knew when I'd be able to leave, regardless of my "progress"). Every night I told myself that I was a good person and reminded myself that I didn't do anything wrong. I did see some other kids not handle things well. At least three tried to commit suicide. Their punishment for that was placement into solitary.
Oh, man, I'm so sorry about what you went through. I work in the mental health field, and there's so many stories of individuals who've been harmed by programs attempting to "fix" someone. I simply cannot fathom what you went through simply because you were gay.
My questions are thus,
What are your thoughts on a religion as a whole now? What were your thoughts on religion prior to your experience?
Did you ever consider trying to escape to a US consulate? If not, what efforts did they use to keep you "in place"?
DAVID: I used to be very religious. Now I am not, but I'd consider myself spiritual. As far as escaping...no chance. The US consulate contacted me once I turned 18 due to the work of Kate the director and my community back home. They were of no help. The consulate was also in Santo Domingo, which was far from where EC was. If a kid even tried to run away, the local Dominicans knew they'd be paid 25,000 dominican pesos to bring us back. One kid actually did try and run but was hog tied by locals and transported back in the bed of a pickup with a rifle to his head.
How aware are the authorities/politicians/locals that this school exists in the DR? And is this that place in Jarabacoa? I feel like the Catholic church has pretty big sway in the DR and would not at all condone what is going on there.
DAVID: The locals are aware but from what I know, they recognize that the program was providing them a substantial amount of money. Yes, it was in Jarabacoa.
Did any sexual abuse go on?
DAVID: Not towards myself but other students have stated they experienced it. Then again, being forced to bend over a chair while a staff member grabs your belt loop to lift your rear end up for swats...kinda seems like sexual abuse being that I was 17.
I'm guessing that this is in the documentary, but when were you released? I assume they can't (legally at least) hold you past your 18th birthday. Do they just hold you until then or did they send you back before that? Where did you go after they sent you back?
DAVID: Being outside of the US, they easily broke the law by saying we had no rights when we turned 18. They lied to us and said there was some "clause" in dominican law regarding US boarding facilities and not granting rights at the age of 18. It was the most unbelievable thing i'd ever heard. We couldn't have escaped either as they had our passports locked up and we were on an island... I returned home to my parents about a month and a half after I turned 18. I was released early by the work of Kate and my community reaching the US embassy, but finally by a judge filing an order of Habeus Corpus. The school quickly stepped in at this point and flew my Dad to the school last minute for him and I to chat and "work things out". Kind of an "oh shit, we better actually do what his parents have been paying for" and semi redeem the relationship between my dad and I. At this point my dad and I actually had a breakthrough, and he understood that I was gay, and there's nothing that can be changed. I wanted to work things out with my parents in the end and I knew they were being fed lies about the program and didn't know what was actually happening.
Holy shit, that is sick. I can't believe they can get away with that. I really admire you for wanting to work things through with your parents. If mine had done this to me I doubt I'd ever want to see them again.
Did you move on to college right away after that or did you have to make up some high school?
DAVID: Thank you for your thoughts man. I went straight into undergrad at ASU :)
I haven't seen the special, but during your time there did you ever believe any of the indoctrination? Did you ever think you were straight? I'm asking because I don't understand how these schools can survive if they don't ever produce the results they claim.
DAVID: I did not begin to believe I was "straight" at any point. I definitely had to pretend to believe in their methods and act the part. Some former student put it best by saying he "learned how to manipulate people" because of how much of your real self you aren't able to show.
What were your beliefs about christianity before and now? Are you still gay? -might sound stupid. Are you happy?
How was this legal?
DAVID: I don't like to associate my beliefs with Christianity anymore. Yes I'm still gay, and yes I am happy.
The reason I asked such a stupid question is I always wonder if they ever 'succeed' at what they do.
being kidnapped was legal? or just because you were only 17 your parents gave consent?
I was legal. Power of attorney was signed over and as I was 17 I had no choice. Then they locked my passport away so they could hold me past the age of 18. It was very common.
Have you considered suing your parents? It won't undo what happened, but it'll give you some financial security.
DAVID: It's not about suing the parents...sue the school if anything.
what were the other guys like? Was everyone really good at pretending? Did you feel you could trust any of the guys? Do you keep in touch with any of them? Was the camp just for gay men or were there other LGBT as well? Besides punishment, how did they try to change you?
Do you have any siblings? How did they feel about you being sent away?
DAVID: It was not just for gay men/women. I do keep in touch with some other people who were sent there.
Why do you keep putting DAVID in all your posts?
DAVID: because both Kate the director and I are sharing this account. Some questions are directed for her, some for me. Thanks for asking.
Have you spoken to your parents at all since you returned?
DAVID: Yes, see below
How have your romantic relationships played out because of your time at Escuela? Are partners usually understanding? Is it hard to date because of what you've been through?
DAVID: LOL well... what I went through is complicated, but it made me stronger. I don't think it's a question of understanding because I choose not to let what happened influence me or control me. Dating has its ups and downs for everyone. I don't think I could attribute the success nor failure of my relationships to my experiences.
What are your feelings on religion in general? Do you differentiate between this awful extremism and normal, positive religious practice or do you think we would all be better off without it?
Also is there a way to watch it if you don't have showtime? Is it going to end up on Netflix anytime soon?
DAVID: Religion question answered a few times below :). For your second question, to each his own. I choose not to associate myself with religion anymore. The film can be seen on showtimes website on demand I believe. Netflix - I hope so but no word yet.
Should we drug test players in the MLB from the DR? Just sayin those fuckers crush baseballs. Maybe theyre super christians! Ever think about playing? Jeebus may be behind you at bat... If that turns you on.
DAVID: lol. I used to play actually and was pretty good too. I just let "Jeebus" take the wheel when I "turn on" my radio in the car. Do you have an actual question?
What do your parents think in hindsight? Do they realize what they did or do they think they were right to send you away?
What is your general relationship with your parents now?
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