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Walking a tightrope

After decades of success in helping drug addicts kick their habits and find Jesus, some Adult & Teen Challenge centers are opening the door for state regulation—and payments

Walking a tightrope

In 1959, on the top floor of a Brooklyn apartment building, Don Wilkerson, 19, stood next to his brother David, 28, watching a heroin addict named Shorty and two others prepare to shoot up. David steadied a 16 mm camera. They planned to film the gritty reality of heroin addiction and take the footage around the country to raise awareness and support for their new ministry to addicts. 

Shorty poked a needle into his arm, hit a vein, and pulled up on the syringe. It filled with his blood. At the sight, David fainted. Don grabbed the camera and continued filming as Shorty mixed heroin with his own blood and pushed the cocktail back into his body. Shorty’s friends did the same. Then Don picked up his brother. “The blood, the blood,” David said. 

David and Don Wilkerson had spent months walking the streets of New York, teaching gang members they could be saved only by the blood of Jesus. David’s 1963 book, The Cross and the Switchblade, became a bestseller and led to a 1970 movie version starring Pat Boone as David Wilkerson. But in the meantime, the Wilkersons had seen the ravages of addiction and heard social workers tell them, “Forget the drug addicts. Once you’re an addict, you’re always an addict.”

They didn’t believe that. In an age before institutionalized clinical and drug rehabilitation centers, the Wilkersons and others developed Teen Challenge, a long-term discipleship and evangelization program for addicts, now known as Adult & Teen Challenge (ATC). After founding the first Teen Challenge center in Brooklyn, where Don still serves as president, the ministry spread. Now, more than 200 ATC centers dot the United States, and more than 100 other countries have ATC centers. 

The main thrust for all ATC centers was a yearlong residential program where drug and alcohol addicts learn that the gospel can free them of their addictions. Mentors—many of them ATC graduates themselves—disciple them through the process, using curriculum written and developed by ATC leaders. They’ve been successful: Studies through the years have shown more ATC graduates kick their habits and turn their lives around than students in other programs.

David Wilkerson continued his work with ATC and other ministries for the rest of his life and eventually founded Times Square Church in New York City. He died in 2011 in a car crash. But Don, now 80, worries that some ATC centers—which are independent and autonomous—are drifting far afield from the core of ATC’s mission: to help adult and teen addicts with Christ-centered solutions. Some ATC centers are trying to walk a dangerous tightrope. They’ve instituted short-term, state-licensed programs, which usually come with more funding. But state-attached strings can make that programming look more like clinical rehab plans instead of the Christ-centered message ATC has always brought to its students.

Brooklyn Teen Challenge

Don Wilkerson (top) speaks at Brooklyn Teen Challenge’s summer 2019 graduation (Brooklyn Teen Challenge)

IN JULY 1995, hundreds gathered outside the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, to protest the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse’s moves against Teen Challenge of South Texas. Texas officials demanded that Teen Challenge counselors sit through classroom instruction in secular ways of handling addiction. The counselors, former addicts who knew every trick of the trade, refused. Their protest, covered by WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky, got the attention of then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. He called off the bureaucracy and began advocating faith-based initiatives, a major component of what came to be known as “compassionate conservatism.”

But one ATC center’s push against state licensure almost 25 years ago has mutated into an embrace of state licensing requirements by other ATC centers. Earlier this year, the national ATC board approved a resolution that affirms each ATC center’s ability to implement what it calls “Continuum of Care” programs: medical or clinical programs that include detoxification and both short-term inpatient and outpatient programs. State licensure for ATC centers usually opens the door for them to take in private insurance payments, Medicaid payments, and other fees for service from state and local governments.

Leaders at many ATC centers—including Don Wilkerson, who’s been the most vocal—criticized that resolution. They said the secular clinical teaching—addiction is a disease for which there is no permanent cure—runs counter to the historical ATC teaching that addiction is rooted in a faulty relationship with God, and God can free addicts. “They need to be surrounded 24/7 in a spiritual atmosphere that addresses those issues,” Wilkerson said.

Brooklyn Teen Challenge

Don and David during an evangelism outreach in 1987 (Brooklyn Teen Challenge)

The pushback, national ATC President and CEO Gary Blackard told me, led to an amendment of the resolution. The new order: Beginning Jan. 1, 2020, any ATC center seeking to implement state-licensed programming can’t do so under the ATC name. Instead, those centers must form separate 501(c)(3)s, with totally separate boards of directors. Those ATC centers’ traditional faith-based yearlong programs—required of all ATC centers—can remain under the ATC organization. 

An important caveat: Ten ATC centers around the country that offer government-licensed programming can continue to do so. Blackard says those centers had either begun such programming or were too far into the 18- to 24-month implementation process to pull back.

Blackard chaired the national board of directors before becoming president and CEO in January of this year. He said it had been considering the “Continuum of Care” action for more than a year because more and more ATC centers were considering state-licensed programming. Several had already begun. The national board accredits each long-term program, but the already-state-licensed programs went unaccredited by the national ATC board, according to Blackard: “This has been the elephant in the room for decades.”

Additionally, the national ATC will be announcing more stringent requirements for all ATC centers on Jan. 1, Blackard said. For example: If a licensing agency forces any “adverse” action on an ATC center—such as stopping all faith-based programming as a condition of licensure—the ATC center must inform the national ATC board and either end its licensure or split into another 501(c)(3). 

Other requirements: ATCs with state licensure should aim for 30 percent of short-term residential students transferring to the traditional long-term program. Short-term licensed programs must also provide some form of chapel or church service as an option for students. If a state won’t allow that, the ATC will have to split off a separate organization to run the licensed program. Medication-assisted treatment, such as methadone, must be outsourced to another provider or spun off into another 501(c)(3).

Blackard also thinks it’s time for ATC to look at other programming options besides the long-term residency programs: “Right now we’re losing the battle for addicts.” ATC centers across the United States have about 7,400 beds available in long-term residency programs, but no more than 5,000 are filled. According to Blackard, 8 out of every 10 people who call ATC centers don’t enroll in ATC. Others leave the long-term program early. “We’ve got to go after those eight who are not coming originally, and we’ve got to keep the ones who are leaving early,” Blackard said: “So how do we do that?”

Sang-Jib Min/KRT/Newscom

Residents at the Mid-Atlantic Teen Challenge listen to a speaker. (Sang-Jib Min/KRT/Newscom)

More ATC centers are also looking at offering faith-based, short-term programs as a way to bring in people who won’t commit long-term. Another new initiative ATC will begin in 2020 is called “Project Reach,” which Blackard described as a way to set a national evangelization strategy. 

But Blackard does defend the clinical-based programming some ATC centers are now using. He referred to a statistic cited by Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge, the first ATC center to run state-licensed programming: Forty-five to 50 percent of short-term program graduates enroll in the traditional long-term ATC program. He also claimed as many people are becoming clean in the clinical programs as in the long-term ones. 

When I asked for statistics, Blackard referred me to Minnesota ATC, which has 11 campuses and was the first to have “Continuum of Care” programming, starting in 2003. Minnesota ATC President Eric Vagle initially turned down an interview request with me but provided written answers to questions about specific results. He said Minnesota ATC’s research shows 67 percent of those who graduated from short-term programs and responded to an interview request reported no substance abuse in the previous six months. (The research only includes a portion of total graduates, since researchers could not track all: Those who slide back into addiction are often hard to find.)

Right now we’re losing the battle for addicts.—Gary Blackard

Other ATC boards have followed Minnesota’s lead. Pennsylvania Adult & Teen Challenge in the last two years has opened detox programs for men and women and also offers a 30-day clinical inpatient program. Teen Challenge New England & New Jersey operates a new venture, Teen Challenge Clinical Group, that offers short-term inpatient and outpatient programming, plus detox. 

Regulations vary from state to state. While centers in many states can’t mandate their licensed programs be faith-based, ATC Ohio Valley offers only a faith-based short-term licensed program. As required by ATC bylaws, state and local groups also offer the traditional long-term program.

Jim Mone/Genesis Photos

Minnesota ATC headquarters in Minneapolis (Jim Mone/Genesis Photos)

WHAT CONCERNS DON WILKERSON and others about these programs is that by accepting state licensing, most ATC centers won’t be free to present the gospel to all addicts. In Minnesota, Vagle said, students in the state-licensed program can participate in faith-based activities. Minnesota ATC also offers students the Alpha program, an evangelistic, ecumenical series of courses introducing the basics of Christian doctrine: “We always offer a voluntary faith-based track that allows clients to attend chapels, participate in Bible studies, attend church, and meet with chaplains.” The majority do. But he added, “We do not believe in forcing people to engage in religious activities to get our help.” 

Wilkerson doesn’t believe in expanding non-faith-based programming for the sake of boosting numbers: “[Having] empty beds doesn’t bother me. It’s empty hearts that bother me.”

Aaron Plumley runs Northern Appalachian Teen Challenge in Clarksburg, W.Va. He went through ATC as a student seven years ago after trying and leaving several short-term, clinical programs: “I’ve watched those other programs fail time and time again.”

Plumley sees the need for ATC centers to begin developing short-term programming for those who can’t or initially won’t commit to a yearlong program. His center has begun allowing some students to leave the program after 90 days. But those students aren’t considered graduates, and ATC staff members encourage their involvement in a local church or in “Living Free,” an ATC-developed support group system. Backing off the gospel in the program isn’t an option: “I’d rather have five students in our program who really want to serve God as 20 who are just trying to beat time or take the easy option out.”

Sal DiBianca runs the ATC center in Sandhills, N.C. He graduated from a Southern California Teen Challenge center in 1980 and has been on staff with the organization since 1987. His center in North Carolina offers only the traditional long-term program: “The DNA of the program is evangelism and discipleship. So we’re just trying to stay true to that course.”

Drug addiction looks different now than it did when David and Don Wilkerson watched heroin addicts shoot up atop a Brooklyn building 60 years ago. With the availability of prescriptions, anyone can become a drug addict—including breadwinners and parents who can’t easily enter a yearlong treatment program. So short-term programs make sense to DiBianca: “As soon as you talk a time frame that’s beyond 28, 30 days, some of those people just check out.” But he won’t support programs that don’t focus on the gospel: “The main thing is the main thing, and that’s that faith in Jesus Christ gives people an opportunity to be free.”

Don Wilkerson told me he would like to see more short-term programs develop too—as long as they’re true to ATC’s historical commitment to Christ-centered treatment. He also thinks any short-term programming should connect graduates with groups like Living Free once they leave.

Brooklyn Teen Challenge

Men worship God  in chapel at Brooklyn Teen Challenge. (Brooklyn Teen Challenge)

IN JULY 2018 Adult & Teen Challenge celebrated the 60th anniversary of David Wilkerson embarking on the ministry. More than 500 people showed up to a special conference at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center in Alexandria, Va. Among the special speakers—including Don Wilkerson—was Peter Greer, president and CEO of Hope International and author of the book Mission Drift.

In both the book and his talk, Greer showed how organizations that aren’t intentional, focused on handing down their mission to the next generation of leaders, drift further and further from their core vision. At the ATC conference, Greer had the crowd singing the lyrics to the VeggieTales theme song before sharing how the Bible-themed children’s TV show lost its way. He pointed out Harvard and Yale universities both began as Christian institutions.

[Having] Empty beds doesn’t bother me. It’s empty hearts that bother me. —Don Wilkerson

At one point he asked the crowd three times, “Can you take Jesus away from Teen Challenge?” Greer warned: “The world is going to look at the progress that you’re making and is going to say, ‘We love what you do. We love the impact that we see. We love the impact of men, women, children, and adolescents. Just tone down the Jesus stuff.’”

Dave Batty, who for 20 years worked as the national curriculum coordinator for Teen Challenge, developed the curriculum ATC students studied in their yearlong programs. Batty says what has come to be known as the “Jesus Factor” is critical to ATC’s ministry. He now trains ATC staff in the United States and around the world: “Another real concern of mine is that we identify and pass on the DNA of Teen Challenge to really keep the core principles clear in the minds of new staff. In other words, to train them on who we are and this is what drives our values.” 

Batty thinks the national ATC board’s policy change this year “in many respects formalized what was already being done.” He says short-term, licensed programs are meeting a need. He’s seen as many as 60 percent of students in a short-term program enroll in ATC’s long-term program: “You could describe this short-term program as a pre-evangelism phase.” He says some students, because of withdrawal effects, should enter a detoxification program—such as the one run by Pennsylvania ATC—before beginning any other ATC treatment: ATC detox centers could funnel more people into the long-term program. 

But Batty warned of the danger in walking such a tightrope: “The issue of funding—of relying on government funding—has major potential for concern because it can easily become the single source of funding.”

In Minnesota, revenue generated through the licensed programs has soared. In fiscal year 2005 Minnesota ATC had $9 million in revenue, including $3 million in government fees and contracts and $4 million in long-term program revenue (insurance payments and room and board fees). In 2017—the latest year for which tax returns are available—Minnesota ATC had $41 million in revenue: $7 million from its long-term program (with $13 million in expenses) and $19 million from its short-term one (with $12 million in expenses). 

A Minnesota Management and Budget agency database shows $7 million in government fees paid to Minnesota ATC in 2017—but in fiscal year 2019, Minnesota ATC received $12 million in state payments, nearly all of which came from Minnesota’s Department of Human Resources. Vagle said Minnesota ATC leaders aren’t concerned about state fees growing too much: “The revenue from our licensed programs allows us to continue to expand.”

Batty wouldn’t offer an assessment on whether ATCs like Minnesota or Pennsylvania are drifting in their mission or relying too much on the revenue that the short-term, licensed programs provide. But he sees why people like Don Wilkerson are sounding alarms, and that’s why he’s still working to help leaders avoid mission drift: “I think there is a danger here of the short-term and secular components taking over and becoming the primary focus of the program.”

Michael Reneau

Michael Reneau

Michael Reneau is WORLD’s deputy editor based in East Tennessee. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelReneau.