The message slowly spread through social media pages in recent days. Distressed high school students missing their friend. A GoFundMe page asking to raise donations for legal fees. A B-list Hollywood TV actor begging fans to help his cousin.
Sarah is a 17-year-old Austin-area girl who extended family members claim was sent to a “gay conversion” boarding school as punishment for taking her girlfriend to a prom.
Sarah’s mother acknowledged enrolling Sarah May 13 in Heartlight Ministries, a residential counseling center for troubled teens near Longview. But she denied Heartlight performs gay conversion therapy or that her daughter was sent there for that reason.
“My daughter would be heartbroken that she is being misrepresented this way,” the mother told the American-Statesman, which isn’t identifying Sarah or her immediate family members due her age and the circumstances around her case. “It has nothing to do with her sexuality.”
But a legal battle is driving debate over parental rights, mental health and religious counseling.
Sarah’s mother’s sister, who lives out of state, filed suit against Sarah’s parents last month. A legal filing says Sarah’s father and the family’s pastor admitted the goal of sending her to Heartlight is to change her sexual orientation.
Neither side’s attorney returned phone calls, and family members said they couldn’t comment because of the litigation.
Her aunt’s claim has picked up steam on social media with the help of Sarah’s cousins Joey Jordan, who started the GoFundMe page, and Jeremy Jordan, an actor on the TV show “Supergirl.” Sarah tried to leave Heartlight but was caught by staff and punished, Joey Jordan wrote.
Sarah is vulnerable, her aunt’s lawsuit argues, because she suffers from depression. The suit accuses her parents of exacerbating that by disapproving of her sexuality.
Her parents argue the opposite in court filings, saying they placed Sarah “in a therapeutic setting to help her with issues of depression, self-harm, drug use, and behavioral issues.” Assuming Heartlight is anti-gay just because it is Christian is “absolutely repugnant,” their plea says.
The lawsuit indicates Sarah contemplated killing herself last year. In a lengthy suicide letter addressed to her girlfriend, Sarah wrote of feeling like a disappointment to her parents and “when they find out how much I love you it will get worse.” But she asks that her parents be told how much she loves them and that “this isn’t their fault.”
The relationship the two girls displayed on their Twitter accounts was a sweet one, marked with anniversary love notes and a prom proposal.
Days before the girls’ prom last month, Sarah posted on Twitter that her parents had forbidden her from going because they opposed her attending with her girlfriend. She urged her friends to “be ready at all times during prom to form a human wall.” A week later, she went to Heartlight.
What is Heartlight Ministries?
There’s no proof that Heartlight Ministries tries to make gay teens straight, but information put out by the facility shows a general opposition to homosexuality.
Mark Gregston, the organization’s founder, posted on the Heartlight website in February instructions to parents on how to deal with teenage girls interested in other girls. He advised parents to respond calmly (noting that a child’s death is worse news) and to consider that it might just be experimentation.
“Don’t blow up and label your child a ‘homosexual,’ or the label could stick!” he wrote.
He advised parents that “doing nothing only allows her to sink deeper into a lifestyle that God warns against” and suggests Heartlight for girls “willing and wanting to make a clean break.”
The company didn’t return a call for comment Wednesday.
Heartlight bills itself as a boarding school and therapy center focused on a “Biblical counseling model” for teens with behavioral or emotional problems. Students can take classes online and participate in extracurricular activities, but don’t attend regular school. Most are there for nine to 12 months, the facility’s website says.
Students are largely cut off from the outside world. According to Heartlight’s website, students are allowed only one phone call per week with their parents, which staffers can monitor and choose to end. Parents are allowed to visit only once per month, also at the staff’s discretion. Staffers decide whether students can send or receive mail from people other than their parents.
Legal options are limited
Even if there was proof that Heartlight’s therapy is focused on sexual orientation, those trying to get Sarah out of the facility face an uphill battle, experts said.
Michele Locke, a lawyer and former judge specializing in family law, said it’s difficult for nonparental relatives to assert standing in such cases. The request for a protective order, which was filed with the case, would require proof that Sarah’s parents have been violent to her.
“I don’t know that emotional harm would fall under family violence,” Locke said.
The American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Counseling Association and others have denounced gay conversion therapy as psychologically damaging. A couple of states, including California, have passed laws specifically prohibiting licensed mental health professionals from performing conversion therapy on minors. Texas has no such law.
David Dinielli, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tries to keep track of groups that try to change people’s sexual orientations, said it isn’t aware of Heartlight or any problems with it. But trying to root out whether any therapy is legitimate is difficult because of its private nature.