‘A Survivor’s Story’

February 14, 2012

‘A Survivor’s Story’

Reform at Victory: a Survivor’s Story by Michele Ulriksen (Pizan Media, 2008, 300 pages)

Reform at Victory is the memoir that sparked the creation of Survivors of Institutional Abuse (SIA), an organization of adult survivors of abuse at facilities that purport to help troubled teens. The organization’s main focus is fundamentalist Christian “treatment” programs. Its mission is both personal healing and activism. Jodi Hobbs, the president of SIA, states that it “would not be here without Michele” because she “inspired others to speak out and share their own testimony of what happened to them.”

Michele Ulriksen (aka. Tresler-Ulriksen) wrote about her horrific incarceration at age 16 at Victory Christian Academy, a residential program for girls. She spent her adult life as a public speaker and activist to change the laws that allow these institutions to get away with severe, unconstitutional and illegal abuse by being unlicensed and unregulated by the state. She also spoke out against the faith-based initiative started by the Bush administration that continues to funnel money to them. Ulriksen tirelessly pursued Michael Palmer, who ran Victory, and she was instrumental in shutting down institutions that he continued to open. Like the other survivors of these places, she was left with PTSD, depression, and alcohol and drug addiction. Just when she seemed to have overcome them, she committed suicide from a drug overdose at the age of 41 in March of 2011.


Although Ulriksen’s experiences took place in the 1980s, the same tactics continue to be used by fundamentalists in programs for teens. They are the same tactics used by cults to break people down and make them accept control and abuse. Ulriksen’s parents told her they were taking her on a family outing. When they arrived at Victory, the staff dragged her from the car and locked her in a small, dark room, where she was forced to listen to Christian music and sermons at full volume. When she was finally let out, it was explained that she would stay there for a year and would not see her family for four months.

For two weeks, she was not allowed to speak to or look at the other residents except for her “buddy” Kathy, who was one of the Helpers. These were a few, select girls who were trusted to explain the rules to the new inmates. The staff pressured the Helpers to police the behavior of the girls, and all were expected to report on each other. Intercoms allowed the staff to overhear conversations. A long list of forbidden words included not only swear words but slang. Everything in the secular world was considered sinful, and forbidden topics of conversation included pants (considered sinful for women), boys, rock music, and celebrities.

The residents were told what to do every minute of the day, much of which was Bible study. Their three hours per day of “school” consisted of Bible stories and creationism. The educational certificates they issued were not recognized by the outside world. The daily “chapel services” consisted of Palmer ranting about unsubmissive women and their sexuality as well as homosexuality. The girls were also subjected to “rap sessions” in which one girl was singled out and the others encouraged to criticize her misdeeds and mannerisms such as how she laughed, ate, or smelled. The staff frequently called the girls names such as “whoremonger” and “slut” and inflicted physically abusive punishments. Girls were in such a state of anxiety that they got “saved” over and over and felt guilty if they didn’t really believe in fundamentalist Christianity.


Like many teens incarcerated in these programs, Ulriksen’s only “problem” was typical teenage misbehavior. Girls with mental illnesses or eating disorders, and even those who attempted suicide were not given therapy but simply punished. Psychiatric medications were treated the same as illegal drugs, and there were no doctor visits because physical illness was considered the result of sin.

In spite of the fact that over a hundred deaths as well as sexual assaults and constant physical and emotional abuse have occurred at these facilities, each reported case is treated as an individual incident by the courts and media. Republicans have been successful in stopping regulation of these places. A few activist groups have attempted to change the laws and raise public awareness, but SIA has had the most success because, using the internet and other media, it has brought survivors together to tell their stories.


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