13050 Highway 89, Jay, FL 32565
At this Christian reform school, teen girls are not allowed to wear pants and can be punished for looking someone in the eye at the wrong moment or for using words like "yeah" and "cool."
The state has investigated Lighthouse for abuse 13 times, most recently in 2011. It found evidence only once, of inadequate supervision.
Girls at Lighthouse may go for months unable to contact their parents. Bad behavior sometimes lands them in the “Room of Grace,” a small, barren room where children are kept in isolation almost every waking hour. Four former students interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times said they knew of girls sent to isolation daily for more than a month — an allegation school officials deny. Head Pastor Russell Cookston said girls are confined for days, never weeks.
A dozen recent residents interviewed by the Times also described a system of discipline in which girls are called upon to physically restrain other girls by tackling and pinning them to the ground. They call it “flooring.” The pastor says peer involvement in restraint is minimal.
Lindsay Brooks , 20
Lindsay Brooks, 20, had a neurological condition that caused her to have violent outbursts she could not control. At Lighthouse, she said, she was gang-tackled and sat on by six or seven girls at a time. Others there between 2007 and 2008 recall her being "floored" frequently, for extended periods of time.
Allie Crawford, 16
While Allie Crawford said she got some positives out of the program, she felt uncomfortable having to be the one to restrain her peers on the floor, or "floor" them. At Lighthouse, girls say, that was part of the job of being a "helper." "I may not agree with everything that Lighthouse did, but they did help... A lot of our lives did change. You just have to be strong to survive it and willing to change."
Cheyenne Homminga, 15
Homminga, like several others, recalls offenders in the “Room of Grace,” sometimes called “the box,” being forced to listen to taped sermons by the girls watching them.
Ali Reichle, 18
Ali Reichle began her 19-month stay at Lighthouse in April 2010 with a surprise. She fell asleep in her mom's car and woke up in Jay, Fla. Immediately, she knew it would be a different lifestyle when she saw girls in long dresses, skirts and culottes.
Michelle Brooks had enrolled her daughter in treatment in four different counties before finding Lighthouse. She felt like she had no other options. She did her homework and questioned Pastor Cookston about things she had read. She saw him and his wife get emotional about their passion for helping girls. She would never have sent Lindsay to Lighthouse had she known her daughter would get "floored," or hog-tied, or kept in seclusion for too long. But she also thinks her daughter walked away with a deeper sense of faith that she would not have gotten at a state facility.
Since 1996, the state has conducted at least 13 investigations at the home, responding to allegations of sexual abuse, bizarre punishment and physical injury to children. The most recent involve allegations made as recently as 2011. The state did not verify the allegations in any of those cases.
DCF abuse or neglect investigations
Maltreatment types reported
Started in California by Pastor Michael Palmer around 1985, a string of problems led that state in 1992 to issue an ultimatum: Get licensed or get out. By then, a child had died in a construction accident and Palmer had refused to let state inspectors on his campus.
In 2004, a former student went to Santa Rosa County deputies with allegations that Palmer had raped her while she was a student a decade earlier. Detective Paul Lio told the Times a statute of limitations killed the case.
In California, Victory Christian Academy, as it was then called, punished teen girls by sending them to the “Get Right Room,” where they could be held in solitary confinement. California noted the room in its list of concerns about the school, citing testimony that girls were sent there for such offenses as bulimia and writing about the room to their parents. Girls being held were forced to listen to hours of taped sermons.
Lighthouse is currently led by Pastor Russell Cookston. Cookston ran Genesis By the Sea, a related school in Mexico that was shut down by authorities amid allegations of abuse. Genesis was not registered with the Mexican government, according to what officials said at the time, and was surrounded by an electric fence. One official said neighbors reported they heard cries in the night.
pastor, executive director
Russell Cookston said he was a desperate father searching for help for his rebellious teenage daughter when he found Victory Christian Academy. He joined the ministry in 1996, moved to the Mexican facility in 1997 and returned in 2004 after Mexico shut the school down. He has served as head of Lighthouse for eight years.
Group home profile last updated: Dec. 7, 2012, 1:49 p.m.