Students Claim Abuse, Brainwashing In School
Montgomery, Ala--The supervisor of a "Christian home" for wayward teen-age girls in Hattiesburg, Miss., is being accused by several former residents of the private facility of beatings, attempted "brainwashing," and other types of abusive treatment in a federal district court trial here.
The legal complaint, filed on one young woman's behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center (splc) in Montgomery, seeks an injunction to set up monitored standards of the programs at the facility, on the grounds that it is violating the civil rights of the residents. Currently, no such standards are required of church-affiliated juvenile homes in Mississippi.
During last week's testimony, a pregnant teenager who had formerly lived at the Bethesda Home for Girls Inc., cried on the witness stand as she described her three-week stay at the facility, which provides instruction along with living arrangements for the residents.
Nineteen-year-old Candy H., whose relatives last month initiated the complaint against the fundamentalist Baptist home, said she was beaten, held against her will, and emotionally scarred by the experience. (U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson ordered at the beginning of the hearing that the last names of the girls testifying be withheld to protect their privacy.)
Admission to the school is voluntary, according to its officials, but before entering, the girls or their parents--in the case of minors--are required to sign a contract that says they cannot leave the school for a year. If a girl is a minor, the home can legally hold the girl for one year with her parents' permission.
Candy told the court that the principal operator of the home, Bob Wills, and his wife asked her why she wanted to "parade her sin" when she asked to leave. "They accused me of being an adulteress and as bad, if not worse, than a murderess," she said.
Other residents of the home testified that they were severely beaten and denied adequate medical care and meals when they violated the home's strict rules. The complaint also alleges that the girls were "brainwashed."
Mr. Wills, his wife Betty, and Linda Williams, all staff members of Bethesda and defendants in the case, denied the allegations.
The Mississippi home is affiliated with a network of Christian homes for which a Texas evangelist named Lester Roloff serves as adviser. Similar charges were made last month about a Roloff-affiliated home in Georgia by parents and state legislators. Mr. Roloff's three juvenile homes in Texas were closed in 1979 after a six-year court battle when he refused to submit the homes to state licensing laws. He also attracted national attention as the subject of a segment on CBS's television program "60 Minutes."
Mr. Wills denied that attempts were made to "brainwash" Bethesda residents. In a recent interview, he said the girls were required to listen to some religious tapes but described the process as "a bloodwashing and heartwashing."
Mr. Wills allowed girls to leave the home after the complaint alleging abuse was filed in late February. Approximately 60 of the 80 girls in the school chose to leave. The Wills are still operating the home for the remaining girls.
Jean Merritt, a psychiatric social worker in Washington, D.C., who was asked by the splc to examine some of the girls, told the court that Bethesda is a "brainwashing environment, by the fear, the physical and emotional abuse, and the close-off of communications [with family and friends]."
The girls, whom she described as "walking time bombs," display symptoms of being brainwashed by a religious cult, said Ms. Merritt.
Some of the former residents told her they have nightmares that they are "going to hell" based on the home's religious teachings. Some have nightmares that Mr. Wills will force them to return.
Candy told the court last week, "When I came home [from Bethesda], I didn't feel right; I felt like an alien. Seeing cars and civilization again, I felt like I wasn't supposed to be there."
Bethesda personnel contend that the home's discipline is strict but not excessive and that strict discipline is a necessary means of breaking the bad habits of the girls, many of whom come from troubled home environments.
Cindy T. of Quitman, Miss., testified last week that she was beaten several times for talking about her past, for talking about running away from the home, and for getting low grades in the academic program.
Cindy and other former residents charge that they were beaten with a split baseball bat and another large wooden paddle. Donna M. of Greenville, Miss., said an employee of the home gave her more than 30 "licks" with the bat after she attempted to run away.
Upon cross-examination by Bethesda's attorney, David C. Gibbs Jr. of Cleveland, Ohio, Donna admitted that she knew running away was against the rules and that she would be punished if caught. She added that she was willing to take that risk.
Donna told the court that after the punishment she was ordered to take a bath in scalding water to keep the bruises from showing.
Mr. Wills testified that spankings are administered for punishment but the girls were not "beaten."
"We give the girls licks occasionally," he said.
Candy told the court that she was concerned for the health and safety of the other girls at Bethesda, especially the physical and mental health of the unwed pregnant girls. The former resident testified that pregnant teenagers are not spared beatings for breaking the rules and are often demeaned in front of the other girls.
When questioned by splc attorney Morris Dees about corporal punishment, Mrs. Wills said, "I love these girls. I give my life for these girls. Do you think I enjoy spanking them? I do not.
"These girls mean everything to us," she continued. "When we let them go, it broke my heart, because I knew what they were going back to: drugs, sex, riding with truckers. ..."
Mrs. Wills testified that she had given "licks" to more than 20 girls.
Candy's mother, Mrs. Sandra L. of Hayneville, Ala., testified that she knew something was wrong when Candy wrote a letter from Bethesda misspelling the word "dear." Prior to entering Bethesda, the mother and daughter had agreed that if Candy wanted to get out of the home, she would spell the greeting "deer."
Candy entered the Baptist home on the recommendation of a Montgomery minister, John Knudsen. She stated in an affidavit that she wanted to deliver her baby away from possible public ridicule because of her out-of-wedlock pregnancy and then to give the child up for adoption to Christian parents.
Mr. Knudsen testified that Candy was also interested in getting a General Education Diploma; he said he recommended Bethesda to her because he knew Mr. Wills.
Mr. Knudsen told the court that he was not aware that Candy would be required to stay for a year with no visits from her family. His name has been dropped from the list of defendants.
Mr. Gibbs will present Bethesda's case when the hearing reconvenes on Wednesday.