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Christian-based Teen Challenge treatment program prompts fight over state funding

There can be large issues hidden in minuscule parts of huge budget bills.

Currently at the Minnesota Legislature, for example, there’s arm-twisting and backroom dealing surrounding $1.6 million in funding that DFLers in the House and Senate stripped from the $11 billion Human Services bill.

teen challenge logoThat $1.6 million was destined for Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge, a Christian-based drug-rehab facility in Minneapolis, with smaller branches in Duluth and Brainerd and plans to open in Rochester.

Without the funding, legislators who support the operation say, Teen Challenge will shrink.

To date, efforts by Republicans to put that money back in the bill have failed in both the House and Senate. But the push is far from over.

Proponents seem to believe that eventually Gov. Mark Dayton and some DFL legislative leaders will allow the funding to re-appear during the tax conference committee hearings.

Long-running dispute

Issues surrounding public funds and Teen Challenge are not new.

In various ways, they’ve surrounded the 30-year-old organization for more than a decade.  Typically, Christian conservatives have supported its mission; political and religious liberals have tended to look at the agenda with suspicion.

What few argue is that Teen Challenge has shown success, often in cases in which other treatment programs have failed.

Teen Challenge claims to successfully treat 75 percent of its 500 residents, an astounding figure.

Proponents speak enthusiastically of the lives “saved’’  and the “return on investment’’ for the state.

kiffmeyer portrait
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer

“These are wounded, wounded folks,’’ said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer,  R-Big Lake. “This is a unique program where people are actually getting help. Why would we stop supporting it?’’

In a letter to Dayton, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, brought out the cost benefits of Teen Challenge.

“If not given a chance to participate in MN Teen Challenge,’’ Limmer wrote, “many of these residents will either face prison or death. At around $43,000 per person to stay in prison per year, $1.64 million dollars per biennium will only house 19 inmates per years. Our public funds are much better leveraged in successful treatment programs like this, rather than putting this category of offender in our prisons where success is less likely.’’ 

Dibble opposes ‘proselytizing’

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said his concern is that too many in  the GLBT community can be damaged by the program that he says is “proselytizing.’’

dibble photo
Sen. Scott Dibble

“Despite their claims,’’ Dibble said, “their approach is predicated on a very specific point of view. That’s their right. It stands to reason that to help someone in recovery, they need a strong set of internal values. But they’re asking for public dollars to further their religious beliefs. That’s not right.’’

During a floor debate over an amendment that would have put the funds back in the bill, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, raised similar concerns, saying Jews ordered into treatment by the courts have been denigrated at Teen Challenge.

Public dollars do go into other Christian-based organizations, such  as Lutheran Social Services and  Catholic Charities.

But those organizations are different from Teen Challenge, Dibble says. In his view, those groups aren’t aimed at conversion; they’re reaching out to those in need but not wearing religion on their sleeves.

For all its successes, Teen Challenge’s cure can be totally destructive for gays and lesbians, Dibble said.

He noted, for example, that Janet Boynes, a former lesbian who has announced homosexuality as sinful and like an addiction, was invited to be a speaker at a Teen Challenge event.

“When a gay person is immersed in an environment like that, they can’t help but think there’s something deeply wrong with them,’’ said Dibble. “Some of those [homophobic] values are inseparable from their approach. It does not work for the GLBT person. . . .It’s fine for those at Teen Challenge to believe what they want, but should taxpayers pay for those beliefs?’’

Proponents deny pushing ‘agenda’

Proponents don’t accept Dibble’s view of the Teen Challenge operation.

“It’s Christian-based,’’ Kiffmeyer said. “But it’s open to all. What he’s saying is like saying, ‘I’m drowning, but I’m Jewish and only Jewish people can save me.’  That’s just not the way it works.’’

Richard Scherber, the Teen Challenge executive director,  was not available for comment for this story. But in a letter to Senate Minority Leader David Hann, Scherber denied that his organization pushes a religious agenda or discriminates against those from the GLBT community.

In the letter, he said that Teen Challenge has a very clear non-discrimination policy.

“MnTC’s programs are available to all people regardless of race, color, creed, religion, marital status or sexual orientation,’’ the policy state.

In the letter to Hann, Scherber went beyond expressing the policy regarding “homosexuality.’’ But the explanation may not exactly give comfort to legislative progressives about Teen Challenge’s ability to deal with GLBT issues.

“Because there is a wide range of opinion on homosexuality,’’ Scherber wrote in the letter, “we have intentionally decided that we are not going to address the issue in our programming. Our policy states that homosexuality ‘is outside of the objectives of our mission.’ ’’

Complicating the issue is the fact that courts  offer an either-or proposition to defendents: treatment or prison? Teen Challenge is often offered as the treatment choice.

Teen Challenge becomes the “choice’’ of people who have run out of choices. One of its strengths is that it offers a 12-month, residential treatment program for alcohol and drug addiction. Most programs in the state offer much shorter residential programs.

And the debate continues, although now in the back rooms at the Capitol. The program works, but it’s hard to separate the program from the fundamentalist Christianity that is part of it.

Dibble said he understands “faith-based’’ treatment. Those in Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance,  refer to “a Higher Power.’’

“But they [Teen Challenge] substitute Higher Power with Jesus Christ,’’ Dibble said.

Proponents of Teen Challenge say that’s little more than a technicality.

“This program is working — it’s giving people a life,’’ said Kiffmeyer.

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 04/26/2013 - 11:07 am.

    I believe they are successful and the program is needed

    however, when I sat in on discussions with what I remember as this organization about partnering with an Indian tribe it was pretty clear that the tribal members traditional religions would be a prickly issue. That would be particularly challenge for a young person with low self esteem issues. We felt that tribal members would be unwelcome unless they converted.

    Again let me state that it may not have been this group but another very successful Christian based teen drug rehab group that had a very good success rate.

    It seems unfortunate that they have not adopted the “higher power” model of the Hazeldon program.

    I strongly support the work they do but I am uncomfortable with providing public funding to only one group of religiously focused groups. I do hope they get all the funding they need from private sources or other religious groups.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/26/2013 - 11:14 am.


    I see -claims- that the program is successful, but no proof.
    This is an old problem in the addictions field; claims do not always stand up to a rigourous analysis.
    In this case have the claims been written up and published in a peer reviewed journal? If so, a citation would be helpful.
    If not, we are left with wishful thinking and good intentions (the paving of the road to Hell).

    And see the Minnesota Constitution Article I sec. 16/

  3. Submitted by Mac Riddel on 04/26/2013 - 12:44 pm.

    As a taxpayer, I’d like to know why my tax dollars are being handed to an organization that blatantly proselytizes their own religious values on troubled youth? This is a huge disregard to the separation of church & state. I have no issue with them continuing operating with private funding, but to use public money is unconstitutional.

    And regarding Paul’s comment, exactly how is this program successful? Has anyone done an intensive study with test groups to determine the benefits of sending people to this organization? Doubt it.

  4. Submitted by Rob White on 04/26/2013 - 02:50 pm.

    I find it difficult to come out on either side in funding issues like these. I think if there is an organization, religiously affiliated or otherwise, that seems to be finding success in rehabilitating those who are having repeated issues, then why wouldn’t we as a society assist in funding its programing? I think the situations where people who are forced to undergo rehab at this place who aren’t Christians, is incredibly unfortunate, and I think represents a hiccup in ‘the system’ moreso than any issue directly related with Minnesota Teen Challenge specifically.

    In society we repeatedly…REPEATEDLY…are being forced to spend enormous amounts of money on placating EVERYBODY..which just isn’t possible. We can’t fund a rehab center that’s affiliated with Christianity and is having enormous success unless we have one for Jews/Muslims too? So you’re gonna defund a rehab program that is proven to help people, and has been for 30 years, because it’s not fair to people of other religions?

    A majority of Minnesotans self affiliate with some denomination of Christianity. If the state wants to fund a successful Christian based rehab program, that will save the taxpayer money through lower recitivism rates in the long run. I have no issues with this. If there are enough athiests/jews/muslims, etc… that are having trouble finding a rehab center, we should look into creating alternative programming, or grant new/additional funding to already in place non-profits that run similar services.

    Why kill something that’s working?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/26/2013 - 03:30 pm.


      Because funding a religious endeavor like that flies in the face of the Minnesota Constitution; specifically, Art. 1 sec. 16 (” . . . nor shall any money be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any religious societies or religious or theological seminaries.”). We don’t fund Christian facilities and say we’ll create alternative programming for other groups.

      “A majority of Minnesotans self affiliate with some denomination of Christianity.” That is unimportant.

    • Submitted by Todd Adler on 04/27/2013 - 08:10 am.


      No one’s trying to kill something that’s working. They’re simply saying if you’re going to accept certain funds they come with conditions attached. If you don’t like those conditions, don’t take the funds. If this program is indeed such a slam dunk success they should be able to get plenty of money from private donors and foundations. Foundations and corporations in particular these days love to give money to children’s programs as it looks good for their PR.

      When it comes to the government though we have separation of church and state so the state doesn’t favor one religion over another. That’s a very sound and wise principle. Otherwise people get grumpy that the government is favoring someone else’s religion over theirs, which leads to religious strife like we see elsewhere in the world.

      Personally I don’t understand why they don’t drop the religious aspect from the program like AA did. That would solve the issue for everyone and all parties win. The program stays, it keeps its funding, and kids get saved. I get the impression that it’s not that they -can’t- drop the proselytizing, but simply don’t want to.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 04/26/2013 - 06:28 pm.

    The guiding Principal is this……

    Separation of Church and State

  6. Submitted by craig furguson on 04/26/2013 - 10:45 pm.

    Limmer is using Crappy ROI Math

    “At around $43,000 per person to stay in prison per year, $1.64 million dollars per biennium will only house 19 inmates per years.” This calculation does not use marginal costs. If you reduce our 9,000 bed prison by 19, all you’ll save is a few changes of clothing and a little food, not $43k. You still need light, heat, walls, guards and support systems.

    Teen Challenge also already gets MN Group Residential Housing funding to help pay for it’s services, up to about $1300 per month per qualified client. The $1.6 million is just gravy on top of the GRH and the donations that it gets.

    Let it go.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/27/2013 - 06:08 am.

    Look up “proselytizing”

    Fortunately, I was not a teenager with drug issues, nor was my son, so I have no direct experience with programs like this. Nonetheless, it does seem that both Mrs. Kiffmeyer and Rob White are misreading the criticism directed at Teen Challenge.

    Based on the article and the quotes therein, I’m not seeing an insistence from the DFL, for example, that separate programs be established for every religion. What it looks like instead is a reluctance to support a program that apparently spends considerable effort toward religious conversion. To fall back on one of Rob White’s lines: “ So you’re gonna defund a rehab program that is proven to help people, and has been for 30 years, because it’s not fair to people of other religions?” If it’s up to me, the answer to that rhetorical question is “Yes.”

    “Fairness” doesn’t seem to be the issue. The argument seems more focused on whether or not a particular religious agenda is being forced on people. It’d be interesting to see if Rob or Mary Kiffmeyer would be quite so enthused about “Teen Challenge” if the religion behind it were Islam, or if it were sponsored and funded by local pagans.

    Teen Challenge may, in fact, be successful, but I’d like to see some support for the 75% success rate being claimed. Further, since there are lots of worthy social programs out there, most of which get little or nothing in the way of financial help from the government, why should Teen Challenge get assistance from St. Paul to spread a religious — as opposed to its treatment — message, if that is, in fact, what it’s doing?

  8. Submitted by Paul Ojanen on 04/27/2013 - 08:56 am.

    Teen Challenge

    It is not a drug treatment center, but a christian evangelical center that treats addicts.

    1: I would like to know how they define a 75% success rate. Is that just program completion? Success is usually defined as sobriety 1 or more years after treatment. How many people simply leave the program?

    Related to this is it is well known that treatment success is related to time in treatment. Other programs, limited by funding and insurance, at best give around 30 days max, if you are lucky. They also do not pay for halfway houses. If a client is lucky enough to be ordered to treatment by the court, they will still get only 90 days in halfway with one possible extension for 30 days and no more. This for people often without any life skills what so ever, depression and other mental illnesses, poor job history, a criminal record and often unsupportive ( if not downright dysfunctional) families. Then we kick them out on the street and wonder why they fail and declare the system is not working. Teen challenge works ( if you define success as having a religious evangelist giving their testimony) because of the length of time in treatment…most clients stay a year. So, an actual comparison would be a year long program with external support, and I guarantee the rate would be the same, if not higher, because you would not lose as many in the beginning who are turned off by the fire and brimstone garbage. Public funding should not go to anything explicitly religious no matter what it is.

  9. Submitted by mark wallek on 04/27/2013 - 10:11 pm.

    “Christian” is the important word here

    No doubt, to some minds, this program has value. And maybe it even produces some measure of real world positive contribution. I do not know. But it’s affiliation with a biased entity of a religious nature, with attendant religious institutions and religious organizations involving themselves by invitation or otherwise, means NO PUBLIC MONEY. The violations of the Bush administration in this area were appalling and should not be allowed to move forward in this state. Christian radicals don’t want abortion either, but none are stepping forward to pick up the cost of a lifetime, as one would expect from individuals whose conception of Christianity is about as deep as a bible page is thick.

  10. Submitted by craig furguson on 04/28/2013 - 06:28 am.

    The $1.6 million is gravy

    The state legislature protected Teen Challenge from Petters clawbacks last year. Teen Challenge also gets access to MN Group Residential Funding to provide housing support for program participants, just like everyone else. The Executive Director, the Rev. Richard Scherber, received a total of $179,341 in compensation in 2011. I think they should count their blessings and call it good.

  11. Submitted by Ann Richards on 04/29/2013 - 09:18 am.

    I am curious to know what percent of their funding comes from private sources, what from churches and what percent from public funding.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/30/2013 - 10:02 am.

    Is it really working?

    In addition to the constitutional issues I have to repeat the question already asked by a few others: Who says it’s working? The claim is a 75% success rate and that’s a fishy claim on the face of it. Success in CD treatment models is typically measured by recidivism rates since “Success” is almost impossible to define. Furthermore, in a field with recidivism rates as high as 90% a claim of only 25% recidivism is astounding to say the least. Furthermore recidivism is typically measured in time frames such as one, two, and five years.

    Now it’s possible that the reporters are screwing the success claim up and getting it wrong, but I don’t see a 75% “success” rate claim coming out of thin air. Personally I don’t trust anything Kiffmeyer says, I’ve seen her make far too many false statements.

    It’s possible this program is actually producing worse results than other programs. If it’s producing comparable results than “working” is a dodgy claim.

    Now if the program could be demonstrated to work better for some Christian clients, an argument could be made for some public funding. The thing that bothers me is judges mandating this program for everyone regardless of religion. There are a gazillion treatment programs in MN so I don’t know why a judge would send a Jew to a Christian treatment program? Regardless of funding THAT’S a constitutional violation.

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