In light of the recent raid on the LDS “cult compound” in Texas, I felt it was appropriate to tell this story. I asked permission to write it because this is an example of just how heavy handed and unjust a government can be.
In 1982, Betty Lou “Bebe” Gaines acquired 120 acres in the Lost Pines area 50 miles outside of Austin, Texas, for the purpose of making a difference in the lives of boys who had committed crimes, mostly sexual, and serious enough so they had to be removed from their families. For most, their choice was to come to Woodside Trails Therapeutic Camp and School, or go to jail.
Bebe believed that if she could get these boys before they were “hard wired” with sexual deviancies, she could give them an opportunity to work through their issues, get closure on them and go on to live normal adult lives. She started this dream from scratch, with raw land and hard work, and for 22 years served an average of 50 students at any given time. Through the work of a dedicated and gifted team, most of the boys benefited greatly from their time at Woodside, graduated from High School and went on to live normal lives.
One of the first things they had to do was learn to build their own rustic dwellings in the woods. This was seen as an important step in their rehabilitation; it taught them elements of teamwork, self sufficiency, trust and hard work. The camp was divided into 4 groups of 15 or so students. There was supervision 24/7 by trained counselors. During the day they attended school in air conditioned classrooms, ate at a mess hall with a commercial kitchen, and bathed in a modern shower house. The school consisted of 5 classrooms, a library, and a computer lab. There was also a fully equipped carpentry shop where a retired Navy officer taught them the elements of carpentry and boat building. At night they slept, under supervision, in the rustic camp quarters they had built themselves.
From Bebe’s point of view, these were her children.
In 2004, Carol Strayhorn was running for the Governor’s office of the State of Texas. Her motto was she was “one tough Grandma”, and as current State Comptroller, she needed to make some kind of a statement of just how tough she was.
As you can imagine, in a school full of kids dealing with sexual misconduct issues of their own, there were any number of dramas of one sort or another going on at any given time. One kid was upset because he wasn’t getting his way so he threatened to charge one of the counselors with sexual misconduct if he didn’t get what he wanted. Not being willing to let blackmail alter the policies of the school, his requests were denied. Apparently he started the ball rolling.
In 2004, a series of articles began to appear in local newspapers and TV stations, charging Woodside Trails with sexual misconduct. There was no apparent foundation for these allegations. The charges against the counselor were being investigated. Most involved in the case suspected the charges were false. Some of the other students refuted his claims and the issue was destined to be dropped.
But never underestimate the desire of a candidate to get elected.
Carol Strayhorn, as Comptroller, demanded an investigation. Her team went to Woodside Trails, and instead of looking at the whole picture, went straight to the rustic campsites. She said in interviews that children should not be allowed to live in such conditions. No children were interviewed. No pictures of the modern classrooms, cafeteria, showers, library or carpentry shop were taken or shown in the news reports. Bebe was not even interviewed.
The press breathlessly repeated every charge made by Ms. Strayhorn until everyone except those who were connected to Woodside Trails believed them. Bastrop is a small community, and the destruction of Bebe’s reputation was devastating.
The coup de gras occurred one day when Ms Strayhorn was being interviewed. With a microphone thrust in her face, she stated something like: “if a 9 year old child is being raped by a 14 year old boy at Woodside Trails, how can you consider that safe?” She just made that up, on the fly. No such incident had ever happened, but when pressed on whether or not it had, she refused to back down. She had her case.
In 2004, the Department of Family and Protective Services showed up, unannounced, with several Suburbans, and gave the school 2 hours to vacate the premises. Although some of these kids had lived at Woodside for years, and had all of their worldly possessions there, they were only allowed to take what they could get together in two hours and carry with them. Children were ripped away from the only stability they had ever known. The scene was described to me as children crying, begging Bebe to please do something. Some of the former students I have talked to say that was the worse day of their lives. They bemoan the fact that they were never asked about any of the charges, and that none of them were true. They knew about the charges to the counselor, knew the kid who was making the accusations, and knew them to be false.
In two hours, Bebe’s life work went down the tubes. Along with the closing of the school, her ability to practice her profession was taken away as well. Just like that, she was left with no livelihood, no ability to work in her trained profession, and no way to prove her case in the media. The insurance company refused to pay her lawyers’ fees because of the charges, even though that was the purpose of the policy in the first place. She had to defend herself with two lawyers who knew her plight. They worked for free for 4 years.
I met Bebe about two years ago, and she was still devastated by the turn of events. About 30 of her former students had gotten back in touch with her; some had even come back because they had no place else to go. One, Rene, walked from Austin- about 45 miles- because he needed to get out of the gangs in the neighborhood where he grew up and knew Bebe would help him. Another, Rolando, came back because he really can’t function at the adult level (Mama smoked crack when she was pregnant with him) and needs light supervision. Bebe handles his affairs.
As of this day the school is closed. I now live here, and am taking care of some of these young men who were students before. That is my ministry. We scrape money together to buy food and supplies, and give them whatever guidance we can. Bebe has been eking out a living as a court mediator while her case goes through the court system. The insurance company just paid the legal fees they should have paid for 4 years ago, so that has helped somewhat. In the courts, she has won three levels of appeals, motions, and countermotions against the Department. It is probable that after 5 or 6 years she will be through the court system, hopefully with enough settlement money to partially compensate her for lost wages for the past 4 years.
She is still seen as a pariah in the State of Texas because of the negative publicity she received, and of course the news agencies and the Department have never recanted a single word of their accusations even though the courts have ruled in Bebe’s favor at every level.
Bebe will never be able to practice her chosen profession.
Please note that the events that were used to shut the school down never happened; that the government agency, at one point, admitted they knew the charges to be false and moved on them anyway; that the news agencies repeated endlessly the “events” that never took place, and not a single one recanted the stories even after facts had come to light; that the raid on the school was completely politically motivated; that there was absolutely no concern for the well-being of the 65 children even though that was the pretext; and that the lives and reputations of Bebe and 20 or so other counselors who loved and were dedicated to these children were completely destroyed.
And Carol Strayhorn, that “one tough Grandma”, is now running for mayor of The City of Austin.