Post-Tribune (IN) - January 3, 1993
Author: The Associated Press
A hearing is planned this week in a child custody dispute that has uncovered prison-like conditions at a conservative Baptist school for girls in Winona Lake, an attorney said.
An Orange County, N.Y., father began fighting to gain custody of his 15- year-old daughter after she was placed in an unaccredited Northeast Indiana school by her mother, who lives in Tennessee.
The teen, whose name is Sarah, has told both her father and his attorney that girls at Hephzibah House are given only a protein drink for dinner if they fail to memorize their Bible verses.
The girls' letters and telephone calls are monitored. Trips to the restroom and showers are supervised, and there are alarms on the doors and windows to keep the students inside, the girl claims.
"I don't know what they're doing to these kids," said Anthony LaBella, a Middletown, N.Y., attorney representing the father. "They have no teachers. They're not allowed to talk in school. The school is not a school."
The school's founder, the Rev. Ron Williams, did not return a phone call Thursday from The Associated Press.
The school's attorney, Paul Refior of Warsaw, was out of town Thursday, his secretary said.
The last names of Sarah and her parents, Lucius and Mary, are not being used because the girl was sexually abused by a stepfather, who is in prison in Tennessee.
LaBella learned Wednesday night that Sarah had been removed from the school, apparently after returning from a court-ordered six-hour visit with her father on Tuesday. She was sighted in Tennessee on Wednesday morning, LaBella said.
"They drove this kid all night long from Indiana back down to Tennessee," he said. "I'm really concerned as to what kind of shape this kid is in."
Sarah's mother brought her to Hephzibah House in February after the teen- ager was expelled from a Christian school in Tennessee, the attorney said.
Lucius, a 60-year-old Teamster who describes himself as a born-again Baptist, is seeking custody of Sarah and her younger brother. An older sister is a married adult.
In a visit with Sarah on Tuesday, LaBella said he learned some "pretty scary stuff" about Hephzibah House , which was founded in Kosciusko County 20 years ago and is funded by independent Baptist churches.
"The kid was a 'zombiac,' " he said. "There's parts of her that reminded me of my 8-year-old daughter, and she's a 15-year-old, not an 8-year- old."
Sarah's education at Hephzibah House involved no interaction with teachers or use of scientific equipment, the attorney said. Alarms are in place "not to keep people from coming in; it's to keep them from going out," LaBella said.
The powdered protein drink mix is served not only to girls who don't memorize their weekly Scripture verses, but also to teens who are sick, to deter them from faking illness, he said.
In an interview recently with The News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne, Sarah said that once she had lived on the drink mix two or three days.
"It's gross. I gagged on it once and threw up," she said.
Lucius has asked a judge in Goshen, N.Y., to grant him permanent custody of Sarah and her brother.
Next Thursday, school officials and Sarah's mother have been summoned to Kosciusko Superior Court for a hearing on the father's request for temporary custody.
LaBella said he hopes to learn more about why Sarah was placed in Hephzibah House , and whether it was in her best interests.
"I need certain information for the long-term benefit of that child. I'm very interested to know what happened at Hephzibah House and how it might impact long term on that youngster," LaBella said.
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