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Freedom Village USA, a Christian home for troubled teenagers, planned to move to this site in Pickens County. File/Bart Boatwright/Special to The Post and Courier

A vacant group home in the upper reaches of the South Carolina mountains will remain empty after its owner announced Thursday it was walking away from its plans to house troubled teens.

Florida-based Hannah Grace Homes says it will no longer seek to open a facility in Pickens County, yielding to mounting local resistance about the prospect of its arrival in the small community of Sunset.

The move came just a week after the organization publicly distanced itself from its former partner, Freedom Village USA, a Christian group home with a checkered past that it once planned to host there. 

Hannah Grace had initially planned to rent land to Freedom Village, a financially hobbled group home that wanted to move to South Carolina from New York’s lake country. That plan quickly met with opposition from several of the group’s former residents, who said Freedom Village’s longtime pastor led with a culture of intimidation that crossed a line into spiritual abuse.

Hannah Grace sought to distance itself from the group earlier this month, saying it would open a group home on its own while Freedom Village wound down its operations in New York. In Sunset, a small community on South Carolina’s mountainous edge, local officials and neighbors were skeptical.

Now, Hannah Grace says it’s walking away altogether, citing unexpected costs and “local concern for the partnership with Freedom Village USA.”

The organization’s board decided that “it was not in the best interest of the program and the community to open the new facility,” Hannah Grace said Thursday in a news release. And it says Freedom Village’s pastor, Fletcher Brothers, will retire at the end of the month.

“I applaud the Sunset community for stepping up when they needed to step up,” said state Rep. Davey Hiott, a Pickens Republican. “And I thank the folks on the other side for making a wise decision, and I wish them the best.”

Roy Costner III, chairman of Pickens County Council, said the episode showed that the county’s residents “are very passionate about their youth and family values.”

The reversal comes months after an April Post and Courier investigation documented Freedom Village’s disciplinary practices. Former students say their misdeeds were aired from the pulpit, where they were assigned hours-long shifts carrying firewood. The school’s records show that students could be dismissed for failing to comply.

Hannah Grace had said it wouldn’t bring the punishment, known as the “woodpile,” to South Carolina.

Freedom Village also faced dire financial straits, including a regulatory order to pay about $1.5 million to former workers in unpaid wages and penalties. A federal judge denied its request for bankruptcy protection, leaving it open to a wave of lawsuits from its creditors.

Brothers has promoted the move on his daily radio show for months, saying he needed followers to contribute to making repairs to the South Carolina property. He asked listeners for money as recently as his Wednesday program. Hannah Grace had said it was still partnering with Brothers to raise money for its South Carolina program.

"Please keep us in your financial giving,” Brothers said. “We need you, my friend. I mean, we need you.”

He added that he needed 250 more people to become "founders" and chip in at least $1,000.

In its Thursday announcement, Hannah Grace Homes said it would contribute the money raised for its South Carolina facilities to another state-licensed group home, though it didn’t specify which.

Brothers and Jonathan Bailie, Hannah Grace’s executive director, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

In a letter to the S.C. Department of Social Services on Thursday, Hannah Grace Homes said the last of its staff members would leave the Sunset property by the middle of September. And it said that Freedom Village had sent all of its students home and the program was shutting down. Freedom Village had about two dozen students as of March, according to New York state records.

The uproar over the move came to a head last week when a group of about 50 Pickens County residents gathered at a fire station to hear former Freedom Village attendee Liz Runge discuss her concerns about the program. Runge said she was representing a group of roughly 150 former students who were opposed to the move.

“We’re all extremely ecstatic, and I think that Hannah Grace Homes made the right decision,” Runge said.

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Pickens County residents talk with Liz Runge, a former student at Freedom Village USA who organized a group of former attendees opposed to the group's move to South Carolina. File/Bart Boatwright/Special to The Post and Courier

In New York, Freedom Village had come under heightened scrutiny from state inspectors, who began making weekly visits to the campus in January. Records obtained by The Post and Courier under an open-records request show that inspectors had long had concerns about the state of its facilities.

An inspector told the pastor he was stepping up his oversight because of “numerous repairs on campus that have not been corrected in a timely manner.” The pastor “was upset and stated he would discuss with his lawyers,” inspection notes show.

Records show that one of the dorms had a broken heating system, mold had grown on the administration building’s basement walls, and New York health officials had issued 16 boil water orders in the previous two years.

“I stated to Pastor that we will monitor progress related to repairs being completed,” the inspector wrote in February. “He against stated he will contact his lawyers.”

In March, Freedom Village told inspectors that it was planning to leave some repair work undone because it was selling the campus where it had welcomed students for nearly four decades. It said it was moving to South Carolina instead.

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Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.

Thad Moore is a reporter on The Post and Courier’s Watchdog and Public Service team, a native of Columbia and a graduate of the University of South Carolina. His career at the newspaper started on the business desk in 2016.

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