Bertram boys' home has long history of dubious activity

By Alexandria Randolph

HLN Correspondent

After criminal investigations resulted in the raid of a ministerial boys’ home last week, details emerging about the ministry and those who run it are only leading to more questions.

The Joshua Home in the 2500 block of Farm to Market Road 243 is under investigation by local and state authorities over allegations of “abuse, neglect, labor violations, fraud, licensing violations and human trafficking,” stated a Burnet County Sheriff’s Department release on Wednesday.

Sheriff Michael Hall of McDonald County, Missouri, gave Burnet County Sheriff’s Office a heads up when he heard the facility had relocated to the area.

“He called a few weeks before (we executed the warrant) and talked to our investigators,” said Burnet County Sheriff Calvin Boyd.

Hall could not be reached for comment as of press time.

Boyd said his deputies began investigating the organization and became concerned that teenage boys at the home were being used illegally as labor for several affiliated organizations, including Joshua Home Lawn Care, Joshua Home Movers and JJW Home Services.

“There have been no charges or arrests yet,” Boyd said on Tuesday morning.

Of the eight boys that were removed during the execution of a warrant at the facility, one remained in the custody of Child Protective Services as of Tuesday morning, officials said.

“One child is returning to his parents tomorrow,” said Lisa Block, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services media specialist said Monday.

Block could not comment on what type of care was provided to the boys that were removed from the facility, but Texas DFPS Spokesperson Patrick Crimmins stated that the role of CPS during the raid last week was “strictly supportive. CPS representatives were there taking care of any of the boys that needed care and attention.”

Tax records show the organization is under the ownership of Gary Wiggins.

History of the facility

This is not the first run-in with the law that Wiggins, Joshua Home founder and director, has had in the past several years. The Joshua Home, then under the name Blessed Hope Boys Academy, was formerly located in Robertsdale, Alabama. According to AL News and WBRC FOX News, in December 2016, the facility was raided by local law enforcement and 22 boys were removed following reports of child abuse that included withholding food, locking children in closets and forcing exercise for hours at a time.

According to information on the Blessed Hope Boys Academy website, which has since been shut down, Wiggins is a born-again Christian and recovering alcoholic and drug addict who felt called to open a Christian boarding school for troubled teens, AL News reported. He and his wife, Meghann, operated the Blessed Hope Boys Academy, later The Joshua Home.

Defense attorney Jeremiah Giles, whom Wiggins’ retained during the Roberstdale investigation, was contacted but could not be reached as of press time.

Robertsdale Police and the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Department were contacted about the December 2016 investigation, but could not be reached as of press time.

In 2017, Wiggins’ ministry was feature in the ABC 20/20 investigation into gay conversion programs with testimony from teenage Lucas Greenfield who said he was beaten at the Blessed Hope Boys Academy facility in Robertsdale because of his sexual orientation.

In the ABC investigation, former camp residents told reporters Wiggins was verbally and physically abusive.

“During his preaching sometimes Brother Gary would say to the boys, ‘That’s just q---r. What are you, q---r? You a f----t, son?’” Rodney Pinkston, a former camp teacher, told ABC.

By May of 2018, the same ministry had relocated to Pineville, Mo. under the new name, The Joshua Home. As of May, investigations in Robertsdale had led to no criminal charges against any of the staff.

Retired Prichard Police Capt. Charles Kennedy told the Burnet Bulletin he assisted Texas Rangers with the investigation of the new facility in Bertram before he claimed the Texas Attorney General called the Rangers off the case. He has investigated ministerial children’s homes since learned of similar homes called the Restoration Youth Association and the Saving Youth Association in 2011. The two were later shut down by local law enforcement agencies due to “appalling” living conditions, WBRC Fox News reported.

“Three people were sentenced to prison,” Kennedy said of the RYA and SYA cases. “They were sentenced to 20 years for each of 11 counts of child abuse.”

Kennedy made it a personal mission to use his skills and influence as a retired police officer and U.S. Army veteran to do something about these abusive situations, he said.

“It’s an absolute horror what they do to these children,” he added “Gary Wiggins does the same kind of stuff that would violate the Geneva Convention.”

Kennedy claimed that Greenfield and other boys told him that at Blessed Hope Boys Academy, Wiggins would punish the children by “making them stand against a wall all day long. He would let them sit to eat, but then they had to stand again – for hours. That’s a war crime ... They work these boys hard and in the sun until exhaustion.”

Kennedy believes many state agencies are “unwilling to investigate these facilities,” especially when the children in their care are from other states, and when the organization is religiously affiliated.

State laws concerning child care

Kennedy said that prior to Alabama House Bill 440 passed in May 2017, the state law required no registration or monitoring of ministerial homes like Blessed Hope Boys Academy, and there was no criminal background check required for employees of such organizations.

Kennedy received support from Alabama Representative Steve McMillan, who was the primary sponsor of the bill in the legislature, he said.

“It took us five years to fight the Alabama state legislature,” Kennedy said. “They (ministerial children’s homes) don’t have to have a business license, but now we make them register.”

Prior to the law, the Blessed Hope Boys Academy operated as a registration-exempt school, outside of state regulation or oversight, claiming religious exemption under state law because it operated as a church ministry.

In Texas, the Texas Administration Code does contain requirements for background checks of employees involved in child care.

The Texas Administration Code provided by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission states that children in 24-hour residential care have the rights to “safety and care, including: The right to good care and treatment that meets the child's needs in the most family-like setting possible; the right to be free from abuse, neglect, and exploitation; and the right to fair treatment.”

Children’s rights also include freedom from “any harsh, cruel, unusual, unnecessary, demeaning, or humiliating treatment or punishment.”

This code, found in Texas Administrative Code 748.1101, means the child cannot be shaken, subjected or threatened with corporal punishment, including spanking or hitting, forced to do unproductive work that serves no purpose, denied food, sleep, restroom facilities, threatened with loss of shelter, or subjected to belittling remarks, as Greenfield claims was done to him by Wiggins.

Records

According to the Texas Comptroller’s Office, for a religious organization to receive a state tax exemption, “it must be an organized, established group of people regularly meeting at a designated location to hold religious worship services,” however, “organizations that simply support and encourage religion as an incidental part of their overall purpose, promote religious work or teach religious understanding do not qualify for exempt status. These include evangelistic groups, Bible study groups, prayer groups and revivals.”

The Joshua Home does not fall under the category of a church, and the organization does have a franchise tax record with the state that originated on May 23. According to a report in The Kansas City Star, The Joshua Home does offer boys an "accredited diploma" in accelerated Christian education through Lighthouse Christian Academy, a curriculum provider. This certificate would not be recognized by two- and four-year colleges.

According to 2015 Tax returns filed in Alabama and recorded on ProPublica, the Blessed Hope Boys Academy, which was filed under nonprofit status, generated a total revenue of $430,000. The organization compensated Gary Wiggins just under $60,000 that year. The year prior, the organization garnered $289,600 in revenue.

No results were found for The Joshua Home or Joshua Home Ministries.

The Burnet County Sheriff’s Office asks anyone with information about Joshua Home, the nonprofit Joshua Home Ministries, or affiliated organizations, Joshua Home Lawn Care, Joshua Home Movers or JJW Home Services to contact the investigations division at 512-756-808 or email cidadmin@burnetsheriff.com.

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