Investigators from the state Department of Social Services, along with county child protection services staff members and deputy sheriffs raided the all-girls Victory Christian Academy Feb. 14 in the most recent effort to force the private boarding school to obtain a license as a community care facility.
Pastor Mike Palmer, operator of the school, called the raid an outrage and said he and many parents of past and present students of the school "will fight this illegal effort by the state to license a private religious boarding school."
During the raid, investigators armed with a search warrant took copies of some of the private records of the teen-age girls who were sent to Victory by their parents because of behavioral problems, truancy and occasional drug abuse, Palmer said. The state officials also conducted private interviews with the most recently enrolled students without allowing school staff or parents to be present.
"That is an invasion of privacy and against the rules of our school," Palmer said. "We allow any state or local authority access to the school and to its students, but only with a school official or parent in attendance. As for the girls' personal files, they are private and should not have been taken."
Rick Peralto, Department of Social Services investigative analyst who led the search at the school, could not be reached for comment, but Tom Hersant, head of the department's San Diego office, confirmed that a search of the Victory campus had been conducted.
Hersant said information obtained from the search had been turned over to the department's legal section to determine what action should be taken.
Kathleen Norris, spokeswoman for the state agency in Sacramento, said the raid was part of an attempt by the state Department of Social Services to force Palmer to license the school as a care home for delinquent girls or to close it down.
She said a search warrant was obtained because the school was in a compound surrounded by a 12-foot fence and with a locked gate.
Palmer said the state Department of Social Services filed a lawsuit against him and his wife in 1989, charging them with the misdemeanor criminal offense of operating a community care facility without a state license.
Although the case never went to trial, it's unclear how it was settled. A file about the case is apparently missing from the El Cajon court. Tim Rutherford, attorney for the Palmers and the school in the 1989 case, said an agreement was reached before the case went to a jury trial.
He said he's not sure how the case was settled but believes that Palmer pleaded no contest to a reduced charge. State investigators were not available to confirm this account.
"There was no fine, no sentence, nothing," Rutherford recalled.
"We thought that it was all over, that we would not be bothered any more," Palmer said about the 1989 court case. He denied that the school provides medications or counseling to the students--one prerequisite for being classified as a community care facility.
"The Supreme Court ruled several years ago that the power to license is the power to control, and we will not subject ourselves to the control of the state," Palmer said.
One former student who has complained to the state about the school is 19-year-old Hollywood resident Blackbird Willow.
In an interview Tuesday, she said she spent about 11 months at Victory Christian Academy, placed there by her parents when she was 15.
Willow said she was placed in a small room, "in solitary" with a taped recording of "preaching" playing 12 hours a day for two weeks.
"I couldn't turn the damned thing off," Willow said, "I wanted to die. I would have committed suicide if I had been able. . . . I finally gave in to them, and they let me out of that room."
She also told of being forced into icy cold showers and of being force-fed baby food when she was in solitary confinement and refused to eat.
Palmer called Willow's charges false.
"This is a free country, and she can say what she pleases," he said. "But I would say we have about 800 girls who have been here and will refute everything she says."