Idaho officials rescued a young girl from a house of horrors, only to send her to a state-licensed facility where she was preyed upon again
By Wilson Criscione / InvestigateWest
Editor’s note: This story details cases of sexual assault.
Alyssa Bowers was 3 when her mom went to prison.
She was 12 when her dad raped her on her birthday.
She was 14 when she testified against him, struggling to get the words out as her dad stared at her from across the courtroom.
“So then what happened?” the prosecutor asked.
“And then — oh God,” she responded.
She described to a jury how he’d raped her repeatedly. In 2016, he was sent to prison for 15 years to life.
The grim saga of Alyssa’s childhood, however, didn’t end there.
She was branded a troubled teen. A girl who was more than her foster parents could handle.
So the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare did what they — and other child welfare agencies across the country — so often do with those children: They sent her to a private, for-profit residential treatment home that promised to help troubled teens.
The facility was called Cornerstone Cottage, located on a suburban street in Post Falls, 25 miles east of Spokane. It had 16 beds for girls like her. And little oversight.
Before long, she caught the eye of another older man — a 21-year-old staffer who’d been hired by Cornerstone without a proper background check and never got the required training to work with girls.
The man’s interest in Alyssa quickly grew. Working on the night shift, he stayed up with Alyssa when she couldn’t sleep. They sat back-to-back on opposite sides of her bedroom door, sharing secrets. He told her she was beautiful, she remembers. She thought she was falling for him.
She was 16.
They planned a way to be alone. She disarmed her bedroom window’s alarm at night and escaped to find him. He introduced her to weed, she says, and they got high and had sex.
It was rape, according to Idaho law, and the man knew it.
When they were finally caught, he told her to deny anything had happened. She followed his lead. Eventually they both confessed to police.
Nobody then disputed he raped her. State regulators knew it. Police knew it. The judge who decided not to put him behind bars knew it.
Yet those in authority — Cornerstone Cottage and the state officials sending kids there — faced few consequences.
But Alyssa paid for it.
It was the “start of my downward spiral that has got me where I currently am now,” she says from a windowless room inside South Idaho Correctional Institution, one of several prisons clustered together amid the dry, brown fields of southern Idaho.
* * *
Girls like Alyssa are products of a system that doesn’t know what to do with kids who’ve been through trauma, who have disabilities or who keep getting into trouble.
As child welfare agencies, the juvenile justice system, school districts and parents decide they can’t take care of them, a network of privately run youth treatment programs has turned housing and treating these kids into a billion-dollar “troubled teen” industry. The government doesn’t track it, but critics estimate that at least 100,000 kids per year are sent to these facilities.
Related: How we reported “The Cruelest Lie”
The programs argue they’re the only ones offering kids the help they need. But with mounting reports of abuse and cruelty at these facilities, celebrities like Paris Hilton have led a national movement to shut down the industry, saying it does kids more harm than good.
In Idaho, Cornerstone Cottage is one of 28 youth residential treatment programs licensed by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. That gives the state the authority to suspend or revoke a program’s license, but regulators have no record of ever doing so.
Cornerstone relies on the state for another thing: money. While other programs in the troubled teen industry might only accept private payers, Cornerstone has almost exclusively taken in girls from the foster care system. Idaho has paid $350 or more per day for each girl it sends there.
In October, however, InvestigateWest revealed how former Cornerstone employees alerted the state to a lengthy list of concerns since the facility opened in 2016, describing an environment where girls were abused, neglected and put in danger by an untrained and overburdened staff. Still, Idaho has let the program continue to operate, a fact that Cornerstone’s founder has cited as evidence that his facility is safe.
InvestigateWest’s previous report included a general description of what happened to Alyssa. But she was unnamed, because she didn’t want to speak publicly at the time.
She said she’s telling her story now because others are still trapped in a broken system that’s complacent toward the abuse and exploitation of girls.
* * *
With her mom in prison for theft and fraud, Alyssa was raised by her stepmom and dad in Nampa, Idaho, just west of Boise. She was homeschooled with her younger brother and one of her older sisters. (Another of Alyssa’s older sisters had been sent to live with a relative and would later tell police she had been molested, too.)
Alyssa remembers as a young child being hit, having metal utensils thrown at her and being told she was fat and ugly by her dad.
She wasn’t allowed many hobbies. But she loved puzzles and books. Her favorite author was Ellen Hopkins, a young adult novelist who wrote about teenage struggles with addiction, mental illness and prostitution.
When Alyssa was around 8, the family moved to Moscow, Idaho, a college town. They lived in a trailer park for a while. Her dad delivered newspapers. It was around then that he began sexually abusing her, she says.
The abuse continued, Alyssa says, when they moved to a house in Lewiston, a slightly larger city of 35,000 people between the Nez Perce Reservation and the Washington border. Her dad opened a thrift store there.
Alyssa started going to public school and a Baptist church. She joined the school track team and realized her favorite subject was math. She was 13 and had just started to come out of her shell and make friends.
At the time, she didn’t know that the sister she lived with was also being molested by her dad. That came out when Alyssa’s sister told a friend, who told their pastor. The pastor’s wife took Alyssa’s sister to the police station.
In March 2015, a social worker who worked for the state picked Alyssa up from school.
Alyssa had seen the social worker before. She previously told the woman that her dad hadn’t done anything wrong.
Now, the social worker had news. Alyssa’s dad was in jail on charges of sexually abusing Alyssa’s sister. Alyssa wouldn’t be going home to him anymore. She’d be in foster care.
In a car outside her office, the social worker wanted to ask one more time if Alyssa had anything to share.
Alyssa broke down and spilled everything. She says now that she told the truth because of what the social worker promised:
“That I was going to be safe,” Alyssa recalls. “I was going to be OK.”
* * *
In April 2016, Alyssa took the witness stand, bracing to be cross-examined by her dad’s lawyer.
Her sister had already testified about being raped. But their dad’s attorney saw a vulnerability with Alyssa. Before her dad had been arrested, she’d told a state social worker different stories.
“The first time, you told her that nothing happened between you and your dad?” he asked.
“And then — so you admit what you’re saying is that’s a lie?”
“And that what you’re — what you told her later is true?”
Alyssa explained in court that her paternal grandmother — who didn’t believe Alyssa or her sisters — had pressured her to stay quiet. She explained why she never mentioned before that the smell of tobacco and Old Spice made her recoil. And why she couldn’t remember the date of each time her dad molested her — it was so often, and it always happened the same way, she said.
“Isn’t it true that the allegations that you’re making against your dad are not true?” the defense attorney asked.
“No,” she said.
Her dad, Matthew H. Bowers, received his sentence on June 30, 2016, guilty of seven counts of lewd conduct with minors, a felony that in Idaho includes any kind of sexual contact between an adult and a child under 16.
The charges didn’t capture what her dad actually did, Alyssa says: It was rape, not just sexual contact.
During the trial, Alyssa and her sister were staying with foster parents. Alyssa had been struggling to adjust to it while her dad’s case was pending. She’d sneak out and go on the run until police picked her up. She’d meet up with older guys and drink alcohol. They were bad choices, she admits, but it was liberating in a way. They were her choices, she thought.
When the case was over, she started to feel better. She’d begun therapy, and it was helping. She dreamed of going to college and becoming an engineer. She wanted to build an underwater city and live there, because nobody had ever done it before.
“I was feeling not so crazy all the time, not so worked up,” Alyssa recalls. “I was finally getting comfortable and feeling OK where I was.”
Then the state moved her.
Alyssa doesn’t know why. (State officials declined to comment on the situation, and InvestigateWest was unable to reach her caseworker.) Maybe her foster parents thought she was too difficult. She just knows that her caseworker showed up unannounced and told her to pack her things. That was always how it happened. If they told her ahead of time, Alyssa would have run.
Alyssa’s social worker drove her two hours north to Post Falls, near the border between Idaho and Washington. The car stopped in front of a building that had the shape of a home. But it wasn’t a home.
It was gated. A dark fence with thick metal bars surrounded it, and Alyssa thought it looked almost like a prison fence. Cars hissed by on Interstate 90 just blocks away, and Alyssa wished they were back on it, going anywhere else.
She panicked, refusing to get out of the car until finally her social worker assured her it’d be OK. Cornerstone Cottage was a place for girls like her — girls who’ve experienced sexual trauma, Alyssa says she was told.
“She said I was going to get therapy. I was going to get the help that I needed. And that it was going to be good,” Alyssa says.
“It was hell.”
* * *
Cornerstone Cottage’s founder, Jim Smidt, had little experience working with kids before opening the facility. The former leader of his local Mormon church, Smidt had operated a senior living facility at the same location before turning it into a youth residential treatment program.
His staff included his family members and people he knew from church. Other than a couple licensed therapists, much of the staff working directly with kids made little more than minimum wage. Smidt says today that he opened Cornerstone because he wanted to help children who need it.
When Alyssa first came to Cornerstone, she says she wouldn’t leave her room, terrified of the chaos around her. Girls bullied, fought and sexually assaulted each other. They attacked the staff who desperately tried to intervene while lacking the proper training, as state investigations would later find.
If the girls wanted out, they ran away, finding it easy enough to get past the magnetic door locks or window alarms. Or they hurt themselves and were rushed to the hospital. Or they did something that got them put in handcuffs.
Alyssa already had night terrors. And she remembers being startled awake nearly every night because another girl would scream “at the top of her lungs,” slamming down books and throwing chairs against the wall.
She received some mental health treatment there, but it wasn’t enough. She was cutting herself often using razors that, she says, staff had no idea she had.
She was supposed to go to school there, but she says Cornerstone never figured out how to transfer her credits from her junior high. She never started, and never went back to school afterward.
She joined the other girls who ran away until police picked them up.
“We’d sneak out our windows and go find cigarettes in the alley,” she recalls.
Bradley Ott, who knew Smidt from church, was hired to work there in the summer of 2017. The 21-year-old had met Alyssa weeks earlier, when a friend of his who worked at Cornerstone brought Alyssa and a couple other girls to the movies and invited Ott to join them.
Ott says today that he had legitimate feelings for Alyssa. He knew what he was doing — initiating a romantic relationship with a 16-year-old — was wrong. At the time, he says his emotions overpowered him.
Alyssa, on the other hand, had no idea she was doing anything wrong.
“I thought it was OK,” she says today. “Now, being the age he was at the time, I obviously see that it was not OK. I would never, ever see somebody that was my age in that way. That was not OK in any way. But at the time, I thought it was — I was very infatuated with him.”
She and Ott were spotted in a parking lot by other Cornerstone employees just after midnight on Sept. 17, 2017. Police got involved, and once they both admitted what had happened, Ott was charged with rape, carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Alyssa’s caseworker pulled her out of Cornerstone.
From there, her life went in the opposite direction of the one she envisioned.
“Instead of showing me how to succeed,” she says, “Cornerstone showed me chaos and hurt.”
* * *
Alyssa had less than two years before the foster care system — society’s other safety net for troubled kids like her — spit her out.
But after Cornerstone, Alyssa had lost any shred of trust she’d had in adults. She felt like a burden to the new foster parents the state placed her with. If she did start to feel loved, she got suspicious.
So she ran back to the only place she knew: her grandmother’s. The one who believed Alyssa’s dad was innocent.
“It was familiar,” Alyssa says. “And also, there was nobody to control what I did.”
Alyssa kept running away, sometimes for months at a time, always ending up back there.
Alyssa says her grandmother, Debra Bernier, would let Alyssa bring her friends over to smoke and drink and party. That freedom came with pressure, Alyssa says, to recant the testimony against her dad.
The state didn’t want her there, but they were unable to stop it.
Twice, Alyssa made unofficial statements saying her testimony against her dad was a lie, only for Alyssa to instead affirm that her testimony was true when it was time to give a sworn statement. Still, her dad requested a new trial based on those unofficial statements.
Bernier, who maintains her son’s innocence to this day, denies pressuring Alyssa into taking back her testimony or allowing Alyssa to stay with her, though she said Alyssa and her friends “came over a lot.” The Idaho Supreme Court, however, took Alyssa’s side. They rejected a motion for a new trial in September 2019, noting that the record “makes it abundantly clear” that Bernier “plays a crucial role in extracting statements” from Alyssa, but that Alyssa had been consistent under oath.
By that point, Alyssa was 18. She’d aged out of foster care, graduating into the criminal justice system.
Alyssa got into harder drugs. Meth and heroin. It consumed her life.
Jail logs from the next couple years show her in and out of jail for petty crimes — theft, trespassing, drug possession.
In 2021, she received a withheld judgment for felony drug possession, allowing her to stay out of jail if she completed three years probation. But she couldn’t stay clean.
She didn’t have a stable job or a home and lived in her addict boyfriend’s camper. A sober living home didn’t work. Drug court didn’t work.
In 2022, her drug possession charge turned into a prison sentence of up to three years.
* * *
Ott’s experience with the criminal justice system went much differently.
Ott pleaded guilty to rape, and in Idaho, that means up to life in prison. Idaho’s rape statute is broad, categorizing penetration between an adult and a minor at least two years younger under the same statute as forcible rape.
But based on a mental health evaluation that the judge interpreted as finding Ott to be a “low risk” predator, prosecutors agreed to let Ott change the plea to injury to a child, a non-sex offense that carries a max sentence of 10 years in prison.
On May 11, 2018, Ott stood in front of Kootenai County Judge Lansing Haynes ready to receive his sentence.
Alyssa wasn’t there.
Ott’s lawyer reminded the judge that Ott had remained employed and made it to every court appearance. The attorney asked that Ott only receive probation.
“This has really affected his life. He had hopes of being a teacher someday, and that’s certainly going to be very difficult if not impossible at this point, due to the nature of this conviction. And so he has suffered a pretty substantial penalty from this,” he said.
Haynes, the judge, decided to give Ott an even more lenient deal, one the defense attorney wasn’t even asking for.
Lansing offered Ott a withheld judgment, allowing Ott to avoid any conviction as long as he completed probation, during which he must perform community service and must not contact Alyssa or get into more trouble.
Haynes stressed he was not making excuses for Ott, whom he said “failed miserably” in his duty to protect a girl he was supposed to be a mentor for.
But Haynes also said there were “other forces” at work: Cornerstone Cottage shouldn’t have put Ott in that position in the first place without proper training, for one.
Secondly, Haynes said, the maturity levels of Ott and Alyssa were closer than their actual age.
“Sometimes troubled youth can have experiences in life that make them have the appearance of a significantly greater degree of maturity. And sometimes men who are in their early 20s have not really exceeded the maturity levels of all the juveniles they may be in contact with,” Haynes said. “That appears to be the situation here as well.”
For all those reasons, Haynes withheld judgment.
“That withheld judgment is indescribably valuable,” Haynes said. “If you complete this probation period, throughout the rest of your life, you can honestly say, ‘I have not been convicted of a felony.’ And that is a good thing to have.”
Haynes admitted Ott was getting off easy. But, “it’s not undeserved. I think your life deserves this.”
“And I think you understood what you have done,” Haynes said. “You know, that young woman had troubles in her life, and all you did was reinforce for her that men are not to be trusted.”
* * *
When InvestigateWest tells Alyssa what happened at Ott’s hearing, she’s incredulous.
“Are you kidding me?” she says. “That’s insane to me.”
Her blue-gray eyes stare blankly at the table between us as tears fall down her cheek. We’re in a breakroom of the South Idaho Correctional Institution’s administrative building. The smell of stale popcorn lingers in the air, and a vending machine rattles in the background.
Alyssa slumps back on a gray couch. It’s a moment of clarity. And heartbreak.
“If that hadn’t happened,” she says, her voice beginning to crack, “eventually I would have been OK. I could have worked through all the other stuff I’d been through.”
She speaks as if addressing Ott directly.
“You came into that facility, unprepared, untrained, not knowing what you’re doing — into a girl’s facility — and preyed on somebody. And nothing happened because of it. Like, your life is going on normal. And my whole life is affected because of it. And he’s fine. He’s OK.”
She’s had more traumatic experiences in her childhood than what happened at Cornerstone. But her time there reinforced the worldview shaped by her childhood trauma: that her value was as a sex object for older men.
So she says she sought validation by running away from her foster homes and meeting them, by doing the things they did.
“Here comes somebody that is supposed to help me not make those choices… not that it was really my choice — I wasn’t even old enough to make that choice — but I chose to participate in whatever that was,” she says. “So after leaving a place that was supposed to help me, I continued to make those same choices.”
Nobody has visited her in prison until this point. She wears a blue uniform identifying her as “kitchen staff.” She has to work in the kitchen to afford shampoo.
She doesn’t talk much to her siblings on the outside. It makes her sad to think of all she’s missing. Weddings. Holidays. Birthdays.
Part of her is terrified of what waits for her on the outside. She made a girlfriend in prison last year who was released in December 2022. Days after her release, she died of an overdose.
Alyssa was devastated. She got drunk on hand sanitizer and was caught, extending her time in prison.
She wondered if maybe that was a good thing.
Was she doomed to a life with two outcomes, prison or death?
“[My girlfriend] was so confident that she was going to do good. And then she didn’t. She messed up one time and it cost her her life,” Alyssa says. “I started doubting myself, like, ‘Yeah, you want to [stay clean], but are you really going to? With everything you’ve been through? And the amount of time you’ve been using? And how deep you were?’” Alyssa says.
* * *
Ott, now married and booking music gigs for small venues around North Idaho, says it’s unfortunate that Alyssa’s in prison. He would not have wished that for her, adding that he “deeply regrets” what he did, that it was a “bad choice.”
“But it’s probably attributed to her decisions,” he says. “It sucks to hear about, but on the flip side, I’m a person who decided to go in a good direction from that choice in my life.”
State regulators wrote up a “statement of deficiencies” explaining what Cornerstone did wrong in creating the environment for a staff member to take advantage of a girl with sexual trauma. But the state imposed no disciplinary action.
Smidt, the owner of Cornerstone, has said that stories like Alyssa’s are an exception and that the vast majority of girls who come to Cornerstone leave it better off than when they arrived.
Idaho Department of Health and Welfare public information officer AJ McWhorter said, in a written statement, that the department cannot comment on individual cases but that “we only send children to placements that we believe are safe for the treatment they need.” Currently, there are five Idaho foster children at Cornerstone Cottage, he said.
Smidt feels validated by the state keeping Cornerstone open and sending girls there. Several girls sent there after Alyssa were also in foster care because they’d been sexually abused by their family, InvestigateWest has found.
Alyssa, however, scoffs at the idea that her story is unique.
“The girls who left there left because they couldn’t handle it anymore,” she says. “A lot of the girls that left Cornerstone I still talk to to this day. And they’re also drug addicts. And they’re also in prison.”
If all goes well, Alyssa, 22, could be released as early as March 2024. This time, she says she’s truly confident she’ll be OK. She’s started to deal with her past — specifically her time at Cornerstone Cottage — in a healthier way, she says. She’s been sober since February. She’s taking self-love classes.
Her support system is still thin, but she plans to live with one of her sisters when she’s released. She’ll finally get her GED and get into treatment.
“That’s pretty much all I have right now.”
She’s not scared for the world to hear her story. Nothing can compare to the scrutiny she faced in that courtroom nearly a decade ago.
She’s making this choice so that her story can mean something. So that it can make a difference for girls like her.
“So that they don’t turn out like me.”
FEATURED IMAGE: (Cornelia Li illustration)
InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Reach reporter Wilson Criscione at email@example.com. This report was supported in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Related: How we reported “The Cruelest Lie”