Monday, October 6, 2008


News-Sentinel, The (Fort Wayne, IN) - January 12, 1993
Scores of people filled a courtroom in this two-stoplight town yesterday for what officially was an emergency custody hearing.

They knew this hearing probably wouldn't be a routine wrangle between divorced parents. At issue was the mother's decision to place Sarah in Hephzibah House , a Winona Lake, Ind., Christian boarding school for girls.

After the two-hour hearing, Houston County Circuit Court Judge Alan Wallace said there was no emergency. For the time being, 15-year-old Sarah - until two weeks ago, a student at Hephzibah House - will remain with her mother, Mary, in Tennessee Ridge, Tenn. Because Sarah was sexually abused by her stepfather, The News-Sentinel isn't using the last names of family members.

Sarah's father's attorney had intended to argue that the 10 months Sarah spent at the school had so traumatized her that an emergency custody transfer was needed. Had the judge ruled in his favor, Sarah would have returned with her father, Lucius, to New York - at least until a Jan. 29 hearing in that state could settle the matter.

The folks from Tennessee Ridge Baptist Church didn't like the idea of Mary losing Sarah, even for a week or two. They run a private religious school themselves - the school Sarah was attending before she was kicked out last year for mistakenly fearing she was pregnant.

They didn't necessarily know much about Hephzibah House , other than what they'd read in the papers. But they knew their preacher, Craig Bryan, had recommended the place to Mary.

Bryan was the one who suggested they drive five miles to the courthouse in Erin yesterday. To support Mary. And those independent Baptists who run the school in Indiana.

The Tennessee Ridge crowd scowled as Lucius' attorney, Anthony "Toots" LaBella, a Mid- dletown, N.Y., child-custody specialist, called Mary to the witness stand.

They weren't sure what to think of LaBella's ponytail and his East Coast brashness. Neither did Mary. She sat stiffly in her lace-collared dress, answering his questions in a voice so soft it was barely audible.

Mary told the court she put Sarah in Hephzibah House because she had refused to stop seeing a boy with whom she was sexually active.

Mary said she hadn't seen anything wrong with Hephzibah House , not on her initial tour of the facility in February, nor during subsequent visits in May and November. She withdrew Sarah on Dec. 29 only because Hephzibah House 's director, the Rev. Ron Williams, asked her to. Lucius' court-ordered visit with Sarah that day, Mary said, was considered an "unscheduled visit" - a violation of Hephzibah House rules.

''The unscheduled visit broke the contract I had with the home," she explained.

Mary paused several seconds before admitting that she knew Hephzibah House staff had punished Sarah for not memorizing Bible verses by serving a "protein drink" instead of solid foods.

She paused even longer when asked whether she approved of such punishment. ''Yes," she said softly.

LaBella wanted to hear more about Mary's views on Hephzibah House , but Judge Wallace didn't.

''All I'm going to hear today is whether this child is in any immediate danger," he reminded LaBella, somewhat testily.

The crowd responded with a series of amens.

LaBella sighed.

The night before, going over the case in his hotel room, it had all seemed so clear-cut.

Sarah spent 10 months confined to a place that screened all communication with outsiders. There had been alarms on the windows. Escorts to the bathroom. He didn't know what that had done to her mental health, but he felt like she needed immediate counseling - or at least evaluation.

Looking around the courtroom yesterday, though, he became painfully aware that he was on the visiting team. A liberal Easterner in a Bible Belt court.

When the judge called a recess, the church members wedged themselves in the narrow stairwell outside the courtroom, shielding Sarah from outsiders.

Many of these people had been at Mary's house the day before, when Lucius went there to see Sarah. It had been an uncomfortable visit.

Sarah told him she wanted to stay in Tennessee. He couldn't tell whether that was what she really wanted, though. He wasn't sure she knew.

Lucius took the stand when court resumed. He described how he had lost touch with his children after Mary and her second husband moved them from New York to Tennessee Ridge in 1987.

It was only after his oldest daughter contacted him in February that he learned she and Sarah had been sexually abused by their stepfather, who's now in prison.

Lucius was indignant that his former wife could have put Sarah in a place like Hephzibah House . Just as he was getting wound up on the witness stand, though, he found himself answering some tough questions, too.

The judge frowned when Lucius explained the informal agreement he'd made with Mary about not paying child support.

The crowd gasped when he acknowledged his current wife was his sixth.

Mary's attorney, Jim Tyson, asked that the motion for emergency, temporary custody be dismissed.

The judge agreed. But he made it clear there were no victors in the courtroom yesterday.

He chided both parents, saying they share the blame for the mess they're in now. And he criticized the church members for getting involved in a case that was already overly complicated.

''You're good people. But let me be as blunt as I can: You ain't got a dog in this hunt. Stay out of it."

After the hearing, in a visit ordered by the judge, Lucius took Sarah and his other two children for a quick drive in LaBella's rented Cadillac. He didn't have much time before his plane left, and they still had an hour's drive to Nashville.

On the courthouse steps, a young church member with a crew cut watched them go.

He'd showed up yesterday, he said, because he wanted to hear more about this boarding school Sarah had been to. He didn't like what he'd heard thus far.

''It don't take a rocket scientist to realize Sarah needed some therapy rather than punishment," he said.

''I'm no rocket scientist, but I know that."