Missouri

Abuse reports shut down his Alabama boys home. Now he's opened another in Missouri

The Joshua Home in Pineville, Mo., claims to be a haven of Christian study, prayer and love for troubled boys.
The Joshua Home in Pineville, Mo., claims to be a haven of Christian study, prayer and love for troubled boys.

The religious home for young boys promises to be a safe haven for those struggling with drugs, alcohol or a "rebellious spirit."

On the website of The Joshua Home — in Pineville, Mo., south of Joplin — anonymous parents credit "Brother" Gary Wiggins and his wife, Meaghan, with turning their sons' lives around through Christian study, prayer and love.

But former students and co-workers at a boys home Wiggins operated in Alabama accuse the 48-year-old born-again Christian of abusive behavior.

In 2016, law enforcement raided the last home Wiggins operated — the Blessed Hope Boys Academy in Robertsdale, Ala. — after several boys ran away and told authorities that staff had punished them with forced exercise, solitary confinement and withholding of food.

In ABC's "20/20" investigation from 2017, one teenager accused Wiggins of physical abuse.

"He took off his belt and started swinging," said Lucas Greenfield, whose mother sent him to Blessed Hope because he is gay.

Wiggins did not respond to a request for comment from The Star but has told other media outlets that he has never assaulted a person in his care and receives written permission from parents to "swat" children. Allegations against him never led to charges.

In Missouri, child care programs operated by religious organizations don't have to be licensed, which means that The Joshua Home isn't subject to inspections or regulation unless the state receives reports of child abuse.

"Unfortunately, there's no regulations with that," McDonald County Sheriff Michael Hall said in a phone interview from Pineville. "We're trying to see if there is any illegal stuff going on."

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services told The Star it has no records of The Joshua Home, nor is it aware of any organizations registered by Wiggins.

So those who have concerns about the safety of boys sent to The Joshua Home have little recourse but to watch and wait.

'All sorts of flags'

That terrifies Carol Greer, of Columbus, Ga., who says her great-nephew, Jacob, was dropped off at The Joshua Home by his mother in March.

"I fear for my nephew's safety," Greer told The Star last week.

Greer said she learned Jacob's mother had pulled him out of school just before his 14th birthday on March 15. Jacob had exhibited problematic behavior and shouted verbal and suicidal threats, Greer says his mother told her.

Greer said she became alarmed after the mother was told she could have little contact with her son.

“Right away that threw up all sorts of flags for me,” Greer said. “You don’t treat adults in any kind of AA or recovery program that way. You don’t cut them off from contact.”

Greer learned more about Wiggins' history through a few online searches. She said she called the McDonald County Sheriff’s Office and asked a deputy to conduct a wellness visit at the school.

Greer said the deputy found Jacob. Though the deputy told her the boy did not appear to exhibit signs of physical abuse and said he was being treated well, Greer says she's not convinced, especially since she cannot contact her great-nephew directly.

The deputy did not respond to The Star's request for comment. But Hall, the sheriff, told The Star that a few other parents have requested wellness checks for their sons. Those boys were permitted to speak to deputies in private and appeared OK.

Greer's worries are not unfounded, said Charles Kennedy, the now-retired Pritchard, Ala., police captain who investigated such schools. He looked into Restoration Youth Academy and its later incarnation, Saving Youth Foundation — Alabama schools whose owners were eventually incarcerated for making children fight, beating them and keeping them locked naked in isolation rooms. Those children had told Kennedy they were fine when he investigated initial complaints about Restoration Youth Academy.

Kennedy became aware of Wiggins from teenager Lucas Greenfield, who was removed from the Saving Youth Foundation school only to be sent to Wiggins' Blessed Hope Boys Academy in 2015. Kennedy says he drove to the Blessed Hope campus to check on Greenfield.

The school was deep in the woods, removed from the road.

"You wouldn’t know the place was there unless you saw that sign and you were looking for it," Kennedy told The Star.

Wiggins greeted Kennedy but wouldn't let him talk to Greenfield alone, Kennedy said.

Greenfield later told police that after Kennedy left, Wiggins beat him and said, "I'm going to get the demon out of you and make you straight.”

Greenfield would run away from Blessed Hope and report his experiences to law enforcement. Two other boys would also report abuse after running away to a neighbor. Law enforcement and state officials then raided Blessed Hope, and 22 boys ages 8 to 17 were sent home. The school then closed.

The staff of Blessed Hope Boys Academy were not charged, however, and Wiggins denied abuse allegations through a lawyer.

'Fly under the radar'

While The Joshua Home website does not identify itself as a gay conversion program, Blessed Hope was included in the ABC "20/20" investigation into gay conversion programs.

“One way or another we are going to get a handle on it,” Wiggins said to a mother of a gay teen from Washington state who let an undercover ABC TV producer accompany her to a meeting with Wiggins.

During the meeting, Wiggins pointed out a boy on surveillance footage who "claims to be a homosexual." He clarified to a producer that he would not beat a Blessed Hope boy for being "queer" but he would beat him for being "really bad."

He told the parent that he could "redirect" boys in his programs about 80 percent of the time.

Former camp residents interviewed by ABC said Wiggins was verbally and physically abusive.

“During his preaching sometimes Brother Gary would say to the boys, ‘That’s just queer. What are you, queer? You a faggot, son?’” Rodney Pinkston, a former camp teacher, told ABC.

It's not clear what Wiggins did before operating Blessed Hope Boys Academy, or when he moved to Missouri after it was closed.

But news reports say he operated a school in Missouri prior to working for the Blessed Hope Boys Academy. Personal accounts and court records indicate brushes with the law in Florida through the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Wiggins has described himself in the past as a born-again Christian and recovering alcoholic and drug addict.

Escambia County, Fla., court records list more than a dozen charges before 2009, including driving with open containers, writing worthless checks, driving under the influence, possession of cocaine and intent to sell cocaine, as well as minor traffic violations.

As executive director for Blessed Hope, he operated an organization that appeared financially stable.

"The organization operates as a home for troubled and disenfranchised boys under the age of 19 and offered medical, ecumenical and educational support for them," tax documents for the organization read.

During the last year of its operation, the organization reported earning $407,510 in tuition revenue.

The school, as does The Joshua Home, offered boys an "accredited diploma" in accelerated Christian education through Lighthouse Christian Academy, a certificate that would not be recognized by two- and four-year colleges.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services does not list any organization registered as The Joshua Home in the state of Missouri nor any license-exempt program operating in Pineville.

"Religious organizations that operate a child care program are to submit a notice of parental responsibility to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services ... at least 5 days prior to starting to operate and every August thereafter," a department representative told The Star in an email.

The representative said that state law allows for the investigation of any facility in violation of Missouri statute and that findings would be turned over to local prosecutors. The representative did not say whether the department was investigating The Joshua Home.

Greer says she’s looking into legal options to gain custody of her great-nephew and remove him from Wiggins' care. She and Hall said they heard that Wiggins may be relocating the boys home to Texas.

Said Greer, “These predators have the opportunity to fly under the radar because they claim to be religiously affiliated.”

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