Boys Ranch has a program that provides assistance to alumni. But it’s not working well for those who were abused while growing up there.
It’s been six months since the news broke that Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch was not the place it purported itself to be.
The nearly 80-year-old institution has long claimed that it does a great job caring for children. It portrays its founder, professional wrestler Cal Farley, as a man who was forward-thinking and compassionate toward children. The privately funded, residential facility—whose 2016-17 annual report shows revenues exceeding $48 million—takes in children often left by parents who can’t or don’t want to care for them.
According to Boys Ranch’s website, “We hold true to the values set over seven decades, and still we prepare young people to become responsible citizens.”
But last December, an article that appeared in The Guardian made public that such “preparation” often included extreme physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that spanned 40 years or more. Boys Ranch admitted that the abuses had, indeed, taken place and offered a weak apology.
It’s unclear how many children were victimized. According to Boys Ranch, about 12,000 young people have lived at the campus in its 78-year history. A Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch Survivors Facebook group that was made public a year ago has grown to 75 members.
Working with Boys Ranch to get survivors help
In the early part of this year, a small group of abuse survivors and I approached Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch President and CEO Dan Adams to see if the institution would offer financial assistance to alumni struggling with long term effects of abuse, such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction, and poverty. (Many survivors have not pursued a legal resource, largely because they lack the resources to pay for attorneys and don’t want to relive their trauma in a public forum only to learn that their lawsuits were prohibited by Texas’ limited statute of limitations.)
Adams agreed to a conference call on January 23. At the meeting, he let us know that survivors could seek help through an alumni support program. While it’s been primarily used to pay for new graduates needing housing and scholarships, Adams assured us that the program could also be used to help alumni of all ages, including those who need therapy, medical care, housing, and transportation.
What’s more, Adams told us, the program budget—which he estimated to be more than $1 million—could be expanded if needed. “What my board and I are willing to do is apply whatever resources it takes,” said Adams, according to my careful notes. The only stipulation was that no survivor would be given money directly; instead, Boys Ranch would send checks to service providers, such as a psychologist or car repair shop.
After that meeting, we felt that Adams and other administrators stood behind the words that appear on the Boys Ranch’s Alumni Support webpage: “Cal Farley’s remains committed to our former residents into adulthood. It’s a familial bond much like that of a traditional family.”
Survivors hit roadblocks
We excitedly reported back to the survivors Facebook group what we had learned. I gave them the 800-number and email address to contact the progam. At first, things looked promising. One man who needed psychiatric care had his $60 per visit out-of-pocket costs paid for by Boys Ranch. Another man got help paying for his truck to be repaired and was promised new eyeglass lenses.
But then we began to see problems. One survivor was steered to a Boys Ranch alumni group for financial help, a group whose members have had a history of being hostile to abuse survivors. (Adams told us he would make sure no administrators brought up the alumni group again.)
It turns out some survivors already had been aware of the alumni support program. When I asked in the Facebook group if anyone had tried to access it, one man wrote, “I have contacted [the administrator of the program] several times since 2010 when I was first told they would provide help. I did this by e-mail and phone. Never got any answer. I finally just gave up.”
We met with Adams and other administrators two more times. During those meetings, we raised various concerns, such as the fact that Boys Ranch wasn’t publicizing the program as one that welcomed older alumni. Instead, the alumni support webpage only promoted services for young graduates who need to “successfully transition to independent adult life.” And it does not appear on the mobile site at all. (To nudge things along, I offered to write new copy for the webpage. At one meeting, Adams said he liked the copy and wanted to use it, but as of today, the page still has the old copy.)
The most significant change we proposed was one Adams himself had raised at our January meeting: We wanted Boys Ranch to hire an independent case manager—one with solid experience working with adults who struggle with issues stemming from childhood trauma and who had no affiliation with the institution. Adams said he would take the idea under consideration.
Our last meeting with Boys Ranch administrators was on April 13. Adams canceled our next meeting for May 1 and didn’t respond to our requests to reschedule it.
A survivor anxiously waits
Like many Boys Ranch abuse survivors, Rob Waldrup has a multitude of needs. He’s 67, lives on social security, and has a serious heart condition. He has trust issues and can get emotionally triggered. Waldrup—the same alumnus whose truck needed fixing and who needs new eyeglass lenses—lives in a small town without many services, one that’s several hours from his cardiologist in the Houston area.
But for months, Waldrup has been working on a plan to improve his situation. He’s going to move in with a friend in Houston for a few months while he waits for a spot to open up at a government subsidized apartment. But to do that, he has to put his possessions in storage. Waldrup figured out the least expensive way to do this, which was to rent a truck and hire a two-man crew. He planned to ask Boys Ranch to take care of the $450 cost which included storing his things for one month. There would be other costs which Waldrup would pay for.
But several weeks before his move date, Waldrup got some bad news—Boys Ranch would not pay the $450. When I asked Waldrup why, he wasn’t altogether sure. He said an administrator told him the institution would pay for his eyeglass lenses or the move, but not both.
I was confused, too. According to Adams, there was plenty of money to handle such a small expense. This “Sophie’s Choice” proposition seemed random and unfair and, given Waldrup’s heart condition, potentially detrimental to his emotional and physical health. I could hear the stress building in his voice as he explained the situation. “I’M STUCK LIKE A PIG IN A GATE!” he texted me.
Keeping advocates at arm’s length
On June 7, I wrote to Kim Reeves, the program administrator, asking if she would approve the moving cost. I didn’t hear back from her until 5 days later, when she emailed me that I should direct my inquiry to Dan Adams and copied him on the email. I heard from Adams the next day. He had some good news: Boys Ranch would pay for Waldrup to move his things into storage.
But Adams’ email also contained a rebuke and a disturbing warning. “The core of what we do is helping [alumni] help themselves,” he wrote, adding that he was “philosophically opposed to fostering dependency (financial or otherwise) with any client.” He added that, while he understood and appreciated my role as an advocate for survivors, “your continued involvement in our processes and decision making relative to individual clients (as with Rob) undermines our effectiveness, and we will distance ourselves from those situations.”
This was not the first time that Boys Ranch had expressed resentment about our advocacy. A few months earlier, another administrator had let me know she was offended that we were asking questions about the process survivors needed to go through when seeking help from the program. I tried to explain that, for survivors, calling Boys Ranch for help was not easy. Many don’t want to appear needy. Plus, this was an institution that had traumatized them as children and left them with lifelong challenges. (It didn’t help matters that In its winter alumni newsletter, shortly after the abuses had been publicized, Adams included a letter in which he referred to survivors’ allegations of abuse as “chatter.” He later told us he regretted using that word, but it did little to build trust among survivors.) These men would need to know what was involved before they thought about picking up the phone.
A way to improve the process
I wrote Adams back, thanking him for approving Waldrup’s moving cost. I also let him know that, for most survivors, the last thing they wanted was to become dependent on Boys Ranch. I also reiterated the idea of the institution hiring an outside person to work with this group.
Taking into account what Waldrup and others have experienced with the alumni support program, we believe that this change would make it more effective for survivors. For one thing, more would feel comfortable accessing the system. “That’s the only way to build any trust with the guys out here in survivor mode and encourage them to participate,” Waldrup told me when I asked what he thought about the idea.
We are grateful that Boys Ranch has a program that tries to help alumni overcome critical life challenges, but it’s clear that survivors of the institution need more specialized care than other alumni. Is Boys Ranch willing to improve the system so it better serves those it harmed, or will it negate their needs in an attempt to turn a blind eye to atrocities of the past?
If you spent time as a child at Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch, or at another faith-based institution and suffered abuse or neglect, please email us about your experience.