Pastor Gary Wiggins has a long history of operating Christian boarding schools for teenage boys under the guise of providing a safe haven for troubled youth. However, multiple allegations of abuse and mistreatment have followed these schools to multiple states over the past decade. Wiggins' pattern of evading authorities by closing schools and reopening in new locations with lax oversight has allowed abuse to continue unchecked. This report will trace Wiggins' trail across state lines and the attempts to finally hold him accountable.
Wiggins Opens Blessed Hope Boys Academy in Alabama
In 2013, Wiggins opened the Blessed Hope Boys Academy, a Christian boarding school marketed to parents as a place to send troubled teenage boys for a highly-structured environment centered on Bible study, chores, and discipline. Located in a remote area of Baldwin County, Alabama, the school operated entirely unregulated due to a religious exemption in state law that allowed church ministries to forgo inspections or licensing.
With no oversight from education or child welfare authorities, Blessed Hope grew rapidly as Wiggins brought in boys from across the country. Revenue increased from $232,524 in 2013 to $430,159 just two years later.
However, warning signs soon emerged. Former students later reported being subjected to beatings, long hours of forced labor, solitary confinement, and other abuses at Blessed Hope. But with the school's remote rural location and lack of outside contact, few reports of mistreatment surfaced.
2016 Police Raid and Abuse Allegations
In December 2016, Blessed Hope Boys Academy was raided by Alabama police and child welfare officials after two students had escaped from the school's campus. The boys reported to a neighbor that they had suffered physical and mental abuse from staff at the school. Specifically, the boys said they were locked in closets for punishment, denied food for extended periods, and forced to perform extreme physical exercises for hours on end.
After obtaining a court order, the Baldwin County Sheriff's Department and Alabama Department of Human Resources removed all 22 students, ranging from age 8 to 17, from Blessed Hope Academy. They were placed in temporary state custody before being returned to their families across various states.
Wiggins adamantly denied that any abuse took place at this school. While the allegations were investigated over the following months, no charges were ultimately filed against Wiggins or his staff. However, the police raid generated significant negative publicity around the abusive practices occurring behind the scenes at his unregulated religious boarding school.
Closing Blessed Hope Academy to Flee Alabama Oversight
In May 2017, just months after Blessed Hope was raided, the Alabama Legislature passed a law to increase oversight of youth residential facilities operated by religious organizations. It required them to register with the state and undergo regular inspections by the Department of Human Resources. Rather than comply with the new regulations, Wiggins chose to shut down Blessed Hope Academy entirely. By preemptively closing the school, he could avoid coming under the purview of Alabama authorities.
Wiggins began making plans to relocate his operation to another state with looser regulations for faith-based schools. This would allow him to reopen under a new name and continue his pattern of exploiting lax oversight.
Wiggins Reopens Abusive School in Missouri
In early 2018, Wiggins relocated to rural McDonald County in southwest Missouri, bringing some of the boys who had been at Blessed Hope Academy in Alabama with him. He opened a new unlicensed religious boarding school called Joshua Home, billing it as a "home for young men struggling in life".
Like Alabama, Missouri's laws exempted religious schools from oversight by education and child welfare agencies. With no required registration, background checks, or inspections, Wiggins could operate Joshua Home without any accountability.
Nonetheless, red flags emerged almost immediately. Within weeks of opening, the local sheriff's department began receiving calls from concerned parents and relatives of boys at Joshua Home. They reported not being able to get in touch with the boys and voiced suspicions about punitive treatment and forced labor occurring at the school.
Authorities Raid Joshua Home and Remove Boys
In July 2018, just months after opening Joshua Home, authorities in Texas coordinated with the McDonald County Sheriff's Department to conduct a raid on the school. Investigators from multiple agencies were already looking into allegations of abuse, neglect, child labor violations, licensing violations, and even human trafficking associated with Wiggins' boarding school operations.
The raid on Joshua Home led to the removal of 8 boys between ages 10-17 from the unlicensed boarding school. The investigation expanded to examine a lawn care business and moving company also operated by Wiggins, which were suspected of exploiting child labor.
While this prompted Wiggins to shut down Joshua Home in Missouri, he faced no criminal charges. Once again, he avoided legal consequences by simply closing a school when scrutiny from authorities became too intense.
Wiggins Reopens Abusive Boarding School Yet Again in Texas
In a now familiar pattern, Wiggins turned up in rural Bertram, Texas several months later with a new unlicensed religious boarding school for boys called Joshua Home. Texas, like Missouri and pre-reform Alabama, had minimal oversight for religious residential facilities. Wiggins was again able to operate free of any mandated registration, licensure, or inspection by state education and welfare agencies.
Nonetheless, Texas authorities kept close tabs on the new Joshua Home location, having developed significant concerns about Wiggins' pattern of abusive practices from his schools in other states. Within weeks of the school opening, Burnet County officials began investigating allegations of abuse, neglect, and forced child labor.
Authorities Arrest Wiggins and His Wife on Trafficking Charges
In August 2019, after a year-long multi-agency investigation into the operations of Joshua Home, Gary Wiggins and his wife Meghann were arrested in Alabama on charges of human trafficking. An indictment alleged that the couple had forced four boys under the age of 18 to work for a lawn care company they owned in Texas, which constituted illegal trafficking.
The 2019 arrests marked the first time Wiggins faced criminal charges for his boarding school operations after years of abuse allegations across multiple states. However, he has pleaded not guilty and the case remains ongoing.
Calls Mount for Greater Oversight of Faith-Based Youth Facilities
Wiggins' repeated ability to evade consequences by exploiting loose state regulations has prompted calls for national reform around faith-based youth residential facilities.
Critics argue that the lack of mandated licensing, inspection, and background checks enables people like Wiggins to perpetuate abuse without accountability. They advocate for extending child welfare oversight to religious schools.
Wiggins' case highlights the need for nationwide reforms to prevent people like him from using religious exemptions as a shield to perpetuate abuse. Extending child welfare oversight to youth religious schools would help close the loopholes that allow them to operate unchecked.
Until stronger regulations are enacted around these youth facilities, people like Pastor Gary Wiggins can continue taking advantage of legal loopholes to escape oversight of their abusive practices. Stronger legal protections are needed to ensure that our most vulnerable youth are not being subjected to harm behind the closed doors of unregulated religious institutions.