Mercy Ministries responds to its critics

Handing of eating disorders questioned by fathers
By: Stephanie Dumm, News Messenger Reporter
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Counseling techniques performed by Mercy Ministries have been called into question lately by at least two fathers. Mercy Ministries is a faith-based nonprofit organization that helps females between the ages of 13 and 28 work through their major issues at residential facilities, according to its website, mercyministries. org. It is headquartered in Nashville, Tenn. Mercy Ministries facilities are in Lincoln; Nashville; Monroe, La.; St. Louis, Mo.; and in Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. The two fathers told The News Messenger that Mercy’s use of recovered memory therapy caused their daughters to sever ties with family. Recovered memory therapy is not a form of treatment performed by Mercy Ministries, according to Mercy Ministries headquarters spokeswoman Eve Annunziato in Nashville, Tenn. The News Messenger summarized the complaints made by both fathers for Annunziato. (See the fathers’ stories on page A18.) Annunziato did not directly address the specific complaints but gave the following statement: “As would be expected in a program that deals with women who have suffered abuse and other trauma during their lives, there are often family dynamics, which are communicated by the women to us in confidentiality. Mercy Ministries follows standard confidentiality regulations and recognizes that the women we serve are adults making their own decisions. Thus, outside family members and/or persons involved in their lives would not be privy to conversations or discussions within the Mercy program unless the woman herself decides to communicate externally.” The News Messenger visited the Lincoln facility at 1896 McClain Drive Tuesday to take photos and ask about staffing there. Mercy Ministries’ California community relations manager Stephanie Vierstra said on Tuesday, however, that the newspaper couldn’t take pictures inside as planned. She also refused to say what the staffing is there and whether nurses and doctors work there. Vierstra said to contact Annunziato. On March 5, Mercy Ministries executive director Christy Singleton, who is based in Nashville, told The News Messenger that there were no doctors at the facility. “The Mercy Ministries counseling curriculum combines biblical principles of healing and unconditional love with best-practice clinical interventions and has been developed over nearly three decades of experience,” Annunziato said. “Mercy Ministries is a free-of-charge Christian residential program for women ages 18 to 28 who choose to come into our program of their own volition to receive help and assistance and recovery from past issues such as abuse, trauma, eating disorders, self-harm, depression and other life-controlling issues. There are “40 beds available for 40 girls” at the Lincoln home, according to Annunziato. Annunziato said that Mercy Ministries counselors have degrees in counseling or psychology. “Many have master’s degrees and meet or exceed state licensing requirements,” Annunziato said. There are five counselors at the Lincoln home, according to Annunziato, and one nurse. She said the counselors “identify root causes for destructive behavior” and “equip residents with life skills and the ability to permanently avoid destructive behaviors.” Annunziato said that “this can be frustrating to persons unfamiliar with confidential rules and standard counseling practices.” Since Mercy Ministries is not considered a medical facility, executive director Singleton said, “none of our homes have doctors on staff.” “We do have an RN (registered nurse),” Singleton said. As far as treating eating disorders goes, Singleton said, a girl would have a “certain BMI (body mass index) to meet prior to attending the program. “They have to be considered medically stable by a doctor before they come to us,” Singleton said. “We have to rely on a doctor’s release for someone to be there. We rely on that third-party assessment.” Mercy Ministries’ Lincoln home is licensed with the state of California under the California Department of Social Services Community Care Licensing Division, according to Annunziato. Michael Weston, the Department of Social Services spokesman, said Tuesday that Mercy “has a good compliance history with us.” When asked if his department would investigate Mercy Ministries due to the fathers’ claims of their daughters’ experience at Mercy, Weston said it’s “not an area we have the authority to regulate.” “Really, you are talking about an issue involving two adults and those aren’t things we have the authority to regulate,” Weston said. “We have regulations regarding health and safety of clients, but when you are talking about somebody receiving treatment, that’s not an area where we have jurisdictional authority.” How an eating disorder treatment center treats the disease The News Messenger talked to Summit Eating Disorders and Outreach Program staff in Sacramento, a medically-supervised treatment center. Nurses “are always on hand” at Summit Eating Disorders and Outreach Program, according to Summit’s director of admissions, Jennifer Lombardi. “Because eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, there is a high degree of medical risk that people are not aware of and that’s why we have nurses,” Lombardi said. “Ten percent of people with eating disorders die and the No. 1 cause of death is cardiac arrest and then suicide.” Lombardi said Summit does not use recovered memory therapy. “Certainly, we are not going to dismiss if a patient brings an issue up. We might gently explore it but we also (say to them), ‘Lets get your behaviors in check,’” Lombardi said. “Sometimes, throughout the course of treatment, patients may have memories they may not have realized or acknowledged.” Summit provides three levels of care for eating disorders, Lombardi said. One is partial hospitalization in an outpatient center, Lombardi said, and patients are there a minimum of six hours a day, five days a week. “This is for patients who need a lot of structure and supervision but are not medically compromised to the point where they need 24/7 supervision,” Lombardi said. Summit also provides intensive outpatient, which is three to four days a week for three hours a day. “That’s primarily groups and individual therapy,” Lombardi said. The last level is outpatient therapy, which she said could be once or twice weekly therapy involving a dietician and/or a support group. “We have a medical doctor, two full-time psychiatrists, three full-time dieticians, two nurses, a medical assistant and then 12 licensed therapists,” Lombardi said. “With our partial program, they are with us seven days a week, 11 hours a day when they first start. We do meals and snacks with them, do individual or couples counseling, daily medical monitoring and then weekly labs.” Lombardi said treatment of eating disorders is first focused on getting the patient medically stable. Then therapy is done. “We’ll start looking at underlying issues, such as if they had trauma or triggers that can fuel the fire or are perpetuating the need for the illness,” Lombardi said. “We do work with patients in terms of identifying triggering factors and working with a support system so they have good communication.” How Mercy Ministries provides treatment for various problems At Mercy Ministries, Singleton describes the faith-based facility as being a “discipleship program.” “They are learning to make choices on their own, which is why they need to be medically stable,” Singleton said. “Obviously, we are very much wanting to make sure a girl is medically stable, and if that doesn’t seem to be the case, we utilize the medical system.” Singleton stressed that Mercy is a “voluntary program.” “The girls come and tell us their story and what they want to work on as far as getting counseling and getting past their issues. It’s generated by them, not us,” Singleton said. “On our end, the goal is getting them wholeness and fullness of life and getting them to a place of not harboring bitterness or feeling like they’re not able to forgive.” Singleton said that the girls who seek treatment from Mercy “are choosing to come.” The News Messenger asked Singleton what she had to say regarding Miller claiming his daughter was threatened with being kicked out for not learning fast enough. “It’s an individualized program and there are certainly benchmarks for the program,” Singleton said. “I’ve never heard of anyone being kicked out.” Annunziato said Mercy does not take funding from the government. “One hundred percent of all our money comes in through private donations from churches and businesses. You can see where every penny comes in and is spent if you go on our website,” Annunziato said. Mercy also does not charge girls for attending the program. “We don’t want them to think we are making money off of their pain,” Annunziato said. Mercy Ministries has received negative press before The Sydney Morning Herald, an Australian newspaper, reported in October 2009 that Mercy Ministries closed its Australia home because of financial challenges. The Herald reported that the “program prevented the residents gaining access to psychiatric care, choosing to focus on prayer, Christian counseling and exorcisms to ‘expel demons’ from the young women.” Annunziato told The News Messenger Tuesday that “Mercy Australia closed, due to losing its funding source.” “One very important note, the Mercy Australian home was independent of the U.S. homes. They were a completely separate entity, had a separate board, separate funding and separate staff,” Annunziato said. “Mercy Ministries of America (MMOA) did not have oversight over the Australian operation. It would be a false statement to imply that MMOA had responsibility for MMAU (Mercy Australia).” But The Tennessean, a newspaper based out of Nashville, reported in December 2009 that Mercy Ministries was affiliated with the Australian home. The founder of Mercy Australia was reported as being friends with Mercy Ministries of America founder Nancy Alcorn in The Tennessean article. The 2009 article also said, “Mercy Australia was an independent charity, with no oversight from Nashville, said Christy Singleton, spokesperson for Mercy Ministries of Australia. The Tennessean reported that “Mercy now has stricter controls for overseas programs,” and that “all homes now have to sign a ministry collaboration agreement.”