Monday, October 6, 2008

Ex-students rip, praise Winona Lake girls' home

By Julie Creek
Journal Gazette, The (Fort Wayne, IN) - September 23, 1992

Some former residents of a Winona Lake church-operated boarding school
for troubled teens say its strict discipline included spankings they
describe as frequent and violent. But at least two more-recent
residents praised Hephzibah House for turning their lives around, and
pastors from around the Midwest say the school has done wonders for
young girls in their congregations who had turned to alcohol and drugs. Five women who lived at Hephzibah House in the early 1980s described
their stay as lonely, frightening and emotionally and physically
painful. ``We got paddled at night,'' said Christine, a woman who
arrived at Hephzibah House in late 1980 and asked that her last name not
be used. ``We had our robes and nightgowns on. Someone would hold your
legs, and somebody else would hold your head. It hurt something awful,
and it left bruises. Some girls got paddled every night, and they had
really bad bruises.'' The Rev. Ronald E. Williams, founder and
president of the Hephzibah House , acknowledges that girls are spanked,
but said the spankings do not cause injury and that other forms of
``correction'' are used first. ``For severe things, such as violence or
outright disobedience, yes, we use the rod,'' Williams said. ``We
correct because we want this child back in the right. We correct for
positive goals, not for vengeance. ``The rod of correction isn't our
only form of correction,'' he said. ``They're corrected verbally. The
rod is reserved for really big problems. If you don't step in, there's
going to be anarchy.'' Williams said there have been no substantial
changes in the discipline administered at the house since the early
1980s. Recent residents of the house could not be identified and,
therefore, could not be contacted. But one recent resident _ interviewed
after her father, a friend of the Williams, learned an article was being
prepared and called a reporter _ spoke highly of the care provided. ``I
didn't like it at the beginning, but after I got my life right with the
Lord, I was determined to get my world right,'' said LaDawn Davis, 19,
of Middletown, Ill. ``I was in a big snowball heading downhill, going as
fast as I could. And I really believe I would have been dead by now if
it weren't for that place.'' The school was incorporated in 1972 and
granted not-for-profit status by the state. The school is associated
with the Believer's Baptist Church, of which Williams is president.
According to the articles of incorporation filed with the Indiana
secretary of state's office, the school's purpose is: ``To lead souls to
a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and to defeat the power of Satin
(sic) in the lives of those he has oppressed. ``To provide shelter and
necessities of living as may be required in the process of
rehabilitation and evangelism of those persons seeking the aid and
assistance of the corporation.'' Hephzibah houses 20 to 22 girls ages
12 to 16 at any one time, Williams said. Girls are referred to the
house by parents. They pay $1,000 in advance and $9 per day, Williams
said. In 1991, the school received $302,383 in donations, an increase
from the $154,409 received in 1990, according to documents on file with
the Indiana secretary of state's office. More than 90 percent of
Hephzibah's income is from donations, with the remainder from interest
on investments, the documents show. The property and equipment is valued
at $335,000. A brochure describing the house lists its strict rules. In
addition to some that might be expected _ no smoking, drinking or
cursing, requirements to participate in work duties, a strict dress code
_ the rules also state: All incoming and outgoing mail is censored.
Only one telephone call is permitted per month, with a 10-minute
limit. Staff members monitor all calls. Trips to the bathroom are
banned between 9:15 p.m. and midnight. In addition, the brochure discusses the church's doctrine and states that girls will be taught ``in a
militant fundamentalist position.'' Williams makes no apologizes for
the strict limits. ``We try to limit the scope of our ministry to
families who have similar fundamental philosophies . . . so that we're
all headed in the same direction,'' he said. He said the girls that
come to the home have severe problems _ such as drug abuse, abortion,
promiscuity or involvement in the occult _ making structure necessary.
That structure can be hard on the teens because many come from
undisciplined backgrounds, he said. ``We have had complaints in the
past from the more slothful girls about picking green beans. Some of the
girls are allergic to work. They think manual labor is a Hispanic man. .
. . (The work) is nothing I wouldn't have my own children do.'' The
limited calls is part of the structure, Williams said. ``We're not
trying to keep children from their parents, but that's the reality of
our schedule.'' On Aug. 25, 1980, five days before her 16th birthday,
Karen Glover's parents woke her in the middle of the night and drove her
from a Cleveland suburb to Winona Lake. Glover said her parents found
out about Hephzibah House from the pastor of the fundamentalist church
they attended. ``The way my parents raised me, I wasn't allowed to cry
when I was hit,'' she said. ``So when they paddled me at Hephzibah
House, I stood very still and didn't cry. They took this as a sign of
rebellion. They finally told me that. They said: `Why don't you cry?
It's very rebellious that you don't cry.' And from then on, I cried.''
But the school had an effect, Glover said. ``When one other girl ran
away, I ran after her and caught her I was so brainwashed.'' she said.
``They turned me into something exactly like them, and it took me years
to get over it.'' Though they were given healthy food to eat, Glover
said she lost 78 pounds during the first eight months she lived at
Hephzibah House, which she attributed to stress and hard physical work.
And she said she never had a menstrual period during her stay. She
graduated in July 1982 and returned to her parents' home in Cleveland.
``My parents took me home and told me I needed to loosen up,'' she
recalled. ``They didn't like me the way I was. I was too straight and
narrow. I wouldn't watch TV or wear makeup. I thought my parents were
wicked. Two months later, they shipped me off to college.'' After a
semester at a Christian College in Florida, she enrolled at Bob Jones
University in Greenville, South Carolina, but dropped out after three
semesters. She said she then began to re-evaluate her experience at
Hephzibah House. After a stint in the U.S. Navy, Glover worked in
several bars and ended up with a serious drug problem. She said she has
overcome the drug problem, is working, and beginning to repair her
troubled relationship with her family. ``If Hephzibah House taught me
anything, it taught me that you can't impose your way of living on
somebody else,'' she said. ``The pain that's inflicted can't ever be
made up.'' During their stays at Hephzibah House during the early and
mid-1980s, four women interviewed say, they were held down by staff
members and hit on the buttocks with wooden paddles for ``bad
attitudes'' or for minor infractions of the school's strict rules, such
as not having their hair curled properly. The four say they suffered
painful bruises from the paddlings. At least five women said their
regular menstrual periods mysteriously ceased when they arrived at
Hephzibah, and resumed only when they left. And one, Karen Glover, said
she tried repeatedly to persuade Kosciusko County officials to
investigate allegations. Williams said paddling prompted an
investigation in the early 1980s, and that the case was turned over to
the prosecutor's office. No action was taken, he said. Kosciusko County
Sheriff Alan Rovenstine said his department looked into Hephzibah House
along with officials from the Indiana Department of Public Welfare in
the early 1980s, but there was not sufficient evidence to file any
charges. He said his department has received no complaints about the
house in the last few years. Peggy Shively, director of the Kosciusko
County Welfare Department, declined to say whether complaints have been
lodged against Hephzibah House because such complaints are confidential
by law. In the early 1980s, state welfare officials visited the school
after a former student complained to police about the paddling, Williams
said. But when the officials arrived to interview Williams and current
students, the only questions asked centered on menstruation. ``The man
asked us, `Do you think a woman's menstrual period is sinful?' ''
Williams recalled. ``It was ridiculous.'' The man also asked whether
the girls were given green pills to stop their cycles, Williams said.
``It was ludicrous. Of course, we don't.'' ``The state seized upon this
and said it constituted neglect. It was turned over to the county
prosecutor, but nothing ever happened,'' he said. Hephzibah House
attorney Paul Refior said he knows of no injuries suffered by any
girls. ``I do know Pastor Williams and the staff love the girls and
want the very best,'' he said. ``Even when they're engaged in any kind
of discipline, they're doing it with the purpose of having the child
benefit from the discipline.'' Williams said: ``We have a policy of not
going beyond certain limits in our correction to prevent any abuse,''
said Williams. ``We will only give a child seven swats maximum to
prevent any kind of damage. There could well be some discoloration of
the skin. One of my own children has very sensitive skin, and you might
see a discoloration as a result, but none of the girls have been
abused.'' Some area ministers praise the work of Hephzibah House.
The Rev. Jim McKinnies, pastor of the Willis Baptist Church in Willis,
Mich., said Hephzibah House may have saved the lives of two teenagers in
his congregation. He said he heard about Hephzibah House from a pastor
friend, and invited Williams to talk to his congregation about the
school. Now he is a member of the school's advisory board. ``If it
hadn't been for that ministry, I don't know what would have happened,''
he said. ``They were having rebellious problems against their parents
and school. They were involved in immorality. One of them said to me a
short while ago that she might have been dead if she hadn't gone to
Hephzibah House.'' He said one girl is still there, and another is
attending college. ``I am aware that paddling is used,'' McKinnies
said. ``But, it is done, I know for a fact, in a very loving and caring
manner. None of my girls came back with any information about anyone
being beaten until they bleed. There's never been any abuse involved.
There always are two staff members there and they're hit on the
buttocks.'' The Rev. Herb Hutchinson, pastor of the Temple Baptist
Church in Kalamazoo, Mich., said he also referred a troubled girl to
Hephzibah House in the early 1980s. ``We had a girl a number of years
ago from our church who went down to Hephzibah House,'' he said. ``She
didn't complete the course, but she's in my church now. She's married.
She's doing great now.'' Tracee Peterson Sloan, 23, of Lake
Station, Ind., wouldn't trade the 2 {1/2} years she spent at Hephzibah
for anything. ``I think my life is better for going there,'' she said.
``I went there intending not to change, but I was loved there. They
worked with me. Of course, I got disciplined, but if I hadn't gone
there, I never would have amounted to anything. I probably would have
become a whore.'' An expert on child abuse argues that programs
like the one at Hephzibah may create tremendous problems for their
graduates. Richmond Calvin, a professor in the division of education at
Indiana University-South Bend, said some of the alleged practices at
Hephzibah may create tremendous problems for students years from now.
Forbidding contact with families for a long as 90 days is dangerous
because it cuts children off from their families, which can scar a child
for years afterward, he said. ``There's no empirical evidence to
substantiate that paddling changes a person's behavior,'' he said.
``What it can do in most cases is make the child smarter about avoiding
certain behavior. But that's only temporary. Those kids are probably
worse off years later.'' ``Structure itself does not constitute abuse,
but when you take away a person's individualism and self-esteem it can
create problems later in life,'' he said. ``And religion shouldn't be
antagonistic. Your religious freedom doesn't allow you to abuse kids.''
(This article was reported by Staff Writers Julie Creek, Suzanne
McBride, Debra Noell and Pat Randle.)