Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Dawn Woodhull: Survivor!

My name is Dawn Woodhull. I was at Hephzibah House from 1990-1991.

I want to begin with telling you why I was sent off to that horrid place so that maybe others wont be so quick to assume I was this out of control teenager that no one could deal with.

I was 15 years old and a typical run of the mill teenager. I wasn't a perfect angel, but honestly I never got into any type of trouble. I weighed 315 pounds and, well, I just wanted attention from someone. I wanted people to like me for me.

My parents were married and divorced, and then married again and divorced again (like once wasn't enough). My mom worked 2 jobs to keep a roof over our head and food on the table. My father, well he was different story. I hadn't seen him in 2 years; he never paid child support, and he became the Jim Jones of the neighborhood, minus the Kool-Aid and mass suicide. He once tried to get his pastor to perform an exorcism on my mother because she was the devil reincarnate.

So after going through all that nonsense, I was well adjusted kid. I went to school, got good grades and so on. Well being way overweight and not so pretty I still had friends. One guy stood out; he liked me for me and wanted to be my first boyfriend, so I began to hang out with him. He was sweet and didn't care that I was fat. I wasn't raised to hate others just because they might be different. He was black, and oh my, that wasn't going to happen in my family I guess.

Phone calls were made, and well a week later my father and grandmother showed up at my door at 6am and I was told that we had to pick up my grandfather in South Bend because he broke his leg. I should have known then something was up because I hadn't seen them in 2 or 3 years. After a 4 hour drive, we pull up in front of this big white house and my father puts his hands on my shoulders and says, "This place is going to help you". I began to scream and cry and jumped out of the car. I tried to run, but the Williams boys were already at the car to escort me in by my arms.

My first hour there I was threatened with the paddle and told that God didn't like girls who strayed outside their race. I was then escorted to the bathroom by Naomi and Mrs. Williams and told to strip and put my worldly clothes in a garbage bag. I was searched from head to toe, and even told to bend over so they could search my private areas. I felt used and dirty after that search. I felt like my dignity had been stolen and that was just the beginning. I then was told to shower and put on the famous blue and red uniform with the square knot in the back.

After all that I was taken back into the room with my parents and the Williams' and told to keep my mouth shut. I wasn't allowed to speak, and I was told if I ran again I would be paddled. I sat there quietly and watched my parents sign all the paperwork and then leave me there for good. I was ushered down stairs to the dorm room and into a closet where a table was set up. I was told to take off my underwear and lay down on the table. No sheet, no blanket, no nothing. I met Miss Saylor and Miss Bronsing. The 2 women held me down as a man walked in and told me he was going to do a pelvic exam on me. I didn't even know what that was at the time. They refused to tell me anything let alone let me speak. The man and both women forced me to strip once again and he examined my whole body inside and out. I also received my first rectal exam. After all that mess I was escorted once again into the dorm room and had to put my belongings away. All this happened in the first 3 hours I was at HH. I had no money in my account yet so I was told to use another girls dirty red socks as a pad until the money came through to get a bag of pads.

We all know the horror stories from all the girls that have given a statement before me. It's happened to all of us including the ones that wont admit it. We all went through one piece of individual hell or another. The two that stuck out for me the most besides the first 3 hours was when I was laying in bed on my 3rd night, and still crying. Miss Bronsing (who was in the bunk above me) got down and sat on my bed and told me to stop crying immediately or else she would send me upstairs. Well I made the worst mistake ever. I said go ahead I don't care. Well next thing I knew I was being yanked out of bed by my hair and taken into the area where we ate (so not to wake the others so I guess) and here came Miss Hoke. I was told to stop crying that instant or else. Well you can guess it didn't happen. I was held from behind by my arms and slapped repeatedly and told not to scream or Mr. Williams would come down and paddle me.

I no longer screamed or cried. I learned from that moment what the place was all about. It's abuse no matter how anyone looks at it.

Yes, we had BM charts, demerits, sentences, 3 minute showers, things they knew we were allergic to but made us eat or do anyway,(they took my epi pen away because it was a weapon), 10 minute phone calls to our parents once a month , which were listened to in case we told them the truth. A 4 hour visit with your parents every 3 months if your tuition was up to date ( I had 2 visits during my 13 months there) and so on and so on.

The list is long of things that happened to me. I have seen so much abuse to other girls as well. Which is my 2nd story, a bunch of us girls came down with a bug. We were all sick and throwing up and so on. Well in order to use the bathroom at night , we had to wake up the staff lady in the hallway and ask permission. I was in the bathroom at this point getting sick for about the 5th time that night when I heard another girl ask to use the bathroom, as she was going to be sick. Miss Hoke told her no she couldn't go in because it was occupied. The other girl threw up right there in the hallway. Miss Hoke made her clean it up with her hands. I ran back in the stall when I heard Miss Hoke threaten her with having to eat it if she got sick cleaning it up. I felt so bad for the girl, but if I knew if I got involved it would be worse for me.

November 11th of 1991 was the best day ever. We went to school like every other day. At 10:00 am we went for a potty break like normal, except we were told be very quick. At that point we were told we were going back to the dorm and to grab our church clothes and coats. I thought it was a field trip; great I can run this time I now weigh 140 pounds (only good thing that came out of it all).

The staff finally told us that we were going home. We were split up between those who lived on the East coast, and those who lived on the West coast. we were sent to 2 different churches in other states. Once we arrived in Lima, Ohio, we were told that our parents were coming to get us. We could talk to whomever we wanted to at this point. So of course the conversations began for the first time with those whom we had never been allowed to talk to. I had known 2 girls when I arrived at HH because I had gone to Christian school with them at one point, but I was never allowed to speak to them ever at HH. Now we were free to talk with one another.

After about 4 hours, Mr. Williams finally showed up with an announcement. He told us that a past student had filed child abuse charges against him and the school. Mr. Williams also told us that child welfare was on the way to pick us all up and take us to foster care homes. He told us that's why he had to get us out of state and send us home. He then left and I never saw him again.

I arrived home the next day still asking permission to come down the hallway at home, asking if my plate was clean enough after I ate a meal, yelling coming down everywhere I went in my own house and having to relive the trauma I had endured there with my mother. I called my grandmother the next day and told her I was home and what had happened. Within 15 minutes my father called. He told me I was going back as soon as the mess was cleaned up with abuse charges. I politely told him over my dead body.

From what I was told HH opened back up Jan 1st of 92. The girl who filed charges against them decided to drop the charges. Gee, I wonder which Williams man got to her and her family? I never heard anymore about HH or the Williams until I decided to do a search on my name (Cuz I thought it would be cool) and came across a site that had my name listed as past student of HH.

So as I sit here 18 years later, with tears running down my face, I can finally tell someone what happened to me at Hephzibah house without feeling like a nut case. Someone else has the same story as me and we will no longer be afraid to speak out.

As for life right after HH. I've been through 2 really abusive marriages and divorces. I found out when I was 17 I could never have children because of internal damage most likely from the botched pelvic exam I had when I got to HH. I went through therapy to find out I have Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and abandonment issues.

18 years later as I sit here and write all this down for the first time, I realize what I do have now. I have a wonderful partner (and yes some of my family blame HH for me being gay, but I don't. I knew before just didn't want to admit it). Her name is Crystal. We have been together for almost 7 years now. For the first time I have finally been able to tell her what happened to me. I wanted to share my story with all of you so that you know you're not alone anymore. It happened to me too.