The abusive side of a Tennessee “group home”: Mercy Ministries

This article was originally posted on RH Reality Check.

Two young women I recently spoke with in intimate and heart-breaking interviews learned the hard way that celebrity Christian endorsements and pretty pink websites can’t cover up the dark, abusive side of Mercy Ministries. Over the past few weeks, they’ve shared stories with me of Mercy staff’s use of coercive control and domination to attempt to “treat” them of their medical and psychological disorders and how Mercy required mandatory HIV and STD testing, as well as detailed confessions from the girls about their past sexual relations (specifically about any lesbian or bisexual experiences) upon intake.

Mercy Ministries is a Nashville, Tennessee based group which was accused of misrepresenting their counseling and recovery services to young women in Australia in 2008. The misrepresentation in Australia was two-fold. First, they claimed their services were free but had the girls sign over their government checks. Second, the ministry claimed to be using licensed therapists and professional counseling methods.  In 2009, Mercy admitted their guilt in misrepresentation on both counts and paid back $120,000 of government aid it had wrongly taken from the girls who attended—in Australia. Although the media attention reached the United States, the founding group (based in Nashville, TN) was never investigated further. Instead Nancy Alcorn, the founder of Mercy Ministries took the investigation as a sign from God that the group was under “spiritual attack” and took fundraising efforts into high-gear.

In 2009, founder Nancy Alcorn’s blog stated:

Since [the scandal], we have reorganized the governing structure of Mercy Ministries to bring new levels of oversight and accountability, have increased our funding efforts, and are in the process of opening two new homes—one in California, one in North Carolina—over the next two years. (Emphasis my own)

The most interesting part of the statement is a complete disregard for the admittance of guilt for misrepresenting their services. Instead, Mercy put extra effort in “increasing funding efforts.” Could this be because the scandal brought a large loss of donation support? Plenty of evidence can be found online about sponsors who cut off financial support and stopped their endorsements of the ministry program after the scandal occurred. Hillsong Church in Australia is one such group. In 2009, they issued astatement about their involvement with Mercy Ministries claiming that they cut all ties with the group.

…[W]e sever any affiliation with Mercy Ministries internationally, and would not be associated with any attempt by Mercy Ministries Inc or Mercy Ministries Ltd, to recommence within Australia, under that or any other name…We would encourage those, that any investigation involves, to cooperate fully.

Religious groups like Mercy are hard to pin down when it comes to accountability—legally and otherwise. Abuses in large-scale ministries can range from financial irresponsibility, mis-allocation of funds, exorbitant salaries for founders, violation of employment laws to medical malpractice. Abuses like these often get overlooked until a whistleblower within the group speaks up. “These groups often operate under the radar of government oversight,” Marci A. Hamilton, shared with me when I spoke with her last week about possible government oversight of a group like Mercy Ministries. Professor Hamilton, author of God vs. the Gavel, is one of the United States’ leading church/state scholars, specializing in issues involving religious entities that harm others. Hamilton is also an advisor for victims in many clergy abuse cases, including cases involving child abuse.

Upon further investigation, I found Marci’s statement rang true. When I inquired about Mercy Ministries licensing with the state, Grant Lawrence Director of Communications for the Department of Mental Health, confirmed my suspicions that Mercy Ministries is not licensed by the Department, which gives group and residential homes guidelines and best practices. (They are licensed as a child-placing agency by the Department of Child Services which only governs children under age thirteen.) The Department of Mental Health also oversees the young adults within these facilities, providing each young woman with a social worker and licensed medical care. If Mercy isn’t licensed by the Department of Mental Health, how can they claim to be providing proper medical treatment and licensed therapy to young women who are rape and sex trafficking victims, suffer from depression and are suicidal? They can’t.

According to Mercy’s own website, qualifications to work at the program include a bachelor’s degree and maturity in their relationship with God. Although the site claims that their counselors have either a master’s degree in counseling or psychology (or be working toward such a degree) and meet state licensing requirements, there are two issues with this. One, statements from Mercy graduates counter this statement. Many residents claim that their counselor was not certified, trained or experienced to deal with the issues they faced such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts. Two, Mercy is not licensed with the Department of Mental Health nor are they a licensed medical treatment facility. They are governed by their own Board of Trustees which doesn’t include medical or counseling personnel. Three, even if their staff is licensed, as they claim, the real issue is the curriculum they teach and what they consider “best practices” as opposed to what secular therapists use as standard practice.

In upcoming articles on Mercy Ministries, I’ll continue to examine the stories of two young women whose lives were negatively impacted on the group, the curriculum and therapy “methods” that were used to treat them and what experts in the field have to say about groups like Mercy.

According to graduates, Mercy Ministries has a dark side that even the bright pink logo can’t hide.

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