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Sunday, December 14, 2008

City Pages on Minnesota Teen Challenge

Excellent article from 1995 here:

Though the Minnesota branch's literature promises that "tours of the facilities are available by appointment," Scherber backed out of a scheduled visit from City Pages twice. He did, however, discuss the program on the phone, alternating between suspicion ("We don't need any turdy publicity") and enthusiasm. "We believe that there is a sin problem with humanity," he explains. "That your problem has a spiritual origin. There is a heavy emphasis on Bible memorization."

There are currently 50 students in Minnesota Teen Challenge, Scherber says: "29 adult males, 14 ladies, and seven teenagers," the latter in a Christian school run out of a nearby church. A list of things to bring for the minimum one-year stay begins with "dress clothes" for church. Would-be residents pay a $100 application fee (the rest of the program is free, though the literature asks residents to turn over 75 percent of any public-assistance payments) and fill out a sheet with questions such as "Have you ever been involved in a homosexual relationship or associated activities? If yes, please explain." Entrants sign a form allowing staff to search their person, their room, and their mail, promising to have communication "with immediate family members only," and to withdraw from drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and coffee beyond a cup a day "cold turkey, aided only by prayer." Finally, they vouch that "I Am Committing Myself To This (1) Year, Deeply Christian Based Program, Without Any Form Of Coercion."


But not everyone who's dealt with Teen Challenge is as sanguine. Julie Borlaug first heard about the program in a Bible study class at her church in Eagan; the instructor suggested that church members "go down and touch" the urban destitute. But when she called and mentioned her 16-year AA background, she says she was told she should get on her knees and repent. What followed was a series of phone conversations in which Borlaug says she merely demanded her due--a meeting, a tour, financial accountability from an organization her church donations were supporting. What she found, she says, made her concerned that she'd run into "some sort of a cult" that dealt with vulnerable people without public oversight. Scherber, for his part, has slapped a restraining order on Borlaug and her husband, claiming that their phone calls harassed him and his employees. "We have all the licenses we need," he insists. "I don't know where this woman is coming from."

As it turns out, both were partially right. Teen Challenge isn't licensed by the state or the city, and it's possible it doesn't need to be. Under Minnesota law, you can operate all sorts of "group residential facilities" without regulation, as long as you're not claiming to be providing health care services such as professional drug treatment. And while state law requires nonprofits to give the public financial information including tax returns, religious organizations are exempt.

Teen Challenge's only vulnerable point may be the fact that it recently began working with adolescents. Scherber says officials have told him he doesn't need a license for that. But following Borlaug's inquiries, the state Department of Human Services has begun looking into the matter: "We will probably want to talk to them," says Julie Reger, manager of the department's licensing division.

Rich Scherber now claims he is licensed by the state department of human services. Why was Scherber so unwilling to provide financial accountability to a church member in Eagan?