Americans 'tortured children' in Czech home for teenagers

Date: 1998-11-16

Kate Connolly
The Guardian

An American couple who ran a youth correction centre in the Czech Republic have been charged with torturing and illegally imprisoning the 57 children in their care.

Allegations of physical and psychological ill-treatment at the Morava Academy, just outside the southern city of Brno, were made by former employees and led to a month-long police investigation.

Glenda and Steven Roach, aged 41 and 52, both former police officers from St George in Utah, were arrested last week, along with two Czech colleagues, Brno police said. If found guilty, they face between two and eight years in prison.

Pupils of the academy - mainly Americans - have been questioned by police.

The 15- to 18-year-olds, described as "troubled teenagers" by the academy management, have told of abuse, including being placed in solitary confinement for weeks, being handcuffed and tied up, and forced to lie on the floor all day.

Some pupils allegedly had to defecate on the floor because their toilet visits were restricted by staff.

"These children were sent here by their legal guardians and held against their will," said Petr Netik, head of the Brno police organised crime unit. "They were given no psychological or medical help during their stay."

He said he would contact the FBI about the possibility of prosecuting parents who may have broken the law in the United States by forcing their children into the academy.

Morava Academy, a former hotel surrounded by a forest and a lake, is run by the Utah-based company Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs. The institution, which opened in January, is part of an international chain of "teenage help" schemes. It charges $ 1,790 ( pounds 1,070) per pupil per month.

Police are also investigating claims of financial impropriety under which children were deprived of pocket money.

"They were supposed to receive $ 80 a month, but were given 120 Czech crowns (pounds 2.40) and told that was the correct conversion," Mr Netik said.

A 34-year-old teacher, Hana Simonova, was sacked from the academy last month after reporting her concerns to the Prague-based child protection agency, White Circle.

She talked of children being locked in padded rooms with whitewashed windows and of one girl being fed sandwiches for two months as a punishment for bad behaviour.

She also said that unruly children were threatened with the school's guard dog. "We had a menu of punishments to give out for various 'crimes'," she said.

"And for every thing a child did wrong there was a financial penalty attached to the parents' bill at the end of the month, plus the restriction of privileges for the children," she added.

Penalties started at 30p for forgetting a schoolbook. Pupils misbehaving in class would be sat upon by staff.

But parents who have been arriving from all over the US to collect their children defended the Roaches.

"They are totally on our side in our efforts to give structure to our kids' lives," said Gita from Los Angeles, who has a 15-year-old daughter at Morava. "We sent our kids here to live in a healthy environment and to learn self -love. We have made great efforts to send them here, remortgaging our houses and giving up our pension plans."

Jo Ellen from Anchorage, Alaska, said her 17-year-old daughter had been placed in solitary confinement, but she had "requested to go there to sort herself out".

The mothers said their children's behaviour had undergone "miraculous" transformations thanks to the academy's "structured and loving" programme.

One of the children, James from San Francisco, said last week: "This place changed my life overnight. For the first time in my life I have a sense of self-worth and I'm going to be really sad when they close it down."

A third of the children have been sent home and some are being cared for by Brno social services.

The Roaches, a Mormon couple, have returned to the academy after being given bail.

Karr Farnsworth, the president of the Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs, said in Brno: "Obviously our rules and the laws of the Czech Republic are incompatible and as long as our programme is not welcomed here we will be forced to move elsewhere."


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