Hephzibah House Journal

Hephzibah House Journal
Susan Grotte's journal from her experience as a student at Hephzibah House, told in short-story form.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Deborah Bogardus: Surviver Stories

            My name is Deborah (Fritz) Bogardus. I was a student at Hephzibah House (HH) for over 3 years.  I have tried to write down my experience at HH before but have always ended up putting it aside, unable to complete it.  When the subject of HH is brought up, life seems to stand still. I get sucked into this spiraling black hole, even 25 years later. The damage is done. I survived it. I will not allow the people who are responsible for my treatment and experiences at HH to destroy the unconditional love, mercy and grace I know my Savior has for me. I am able to stand firm in my faith, despite HH.   It is extremely difficult reliving these memories. Very few memories were good.  The only good memories I have are from spending time directly with other girls, those were rare moments, but ones I treasure.
My parents fought a lot.  I couldn’t take the constant bickering and fighting.  One night, I ran away to a friend of a friend’s house. The next day I was returned to my parent’s home. I was immediately taken to the ER. My parents wanted to make sure I hadn’t been raped. I assured them I had not been, but was asked to be examined by a physician. I agreed. The physician explained they were going to do an exam. I saw a speculum on the tray and said I do NOT want a vaginal examine. The Dr agreed it was unnecessary and respected my wishes. I had a regular physical examine minus the vaginal exam/ pap smear.  I was 13. I had never had sex, done drugs, drank, smoked etc, and in general, was not a problem child. I was a typical frustrated, unhappy, complicated, hormonal teen, growing up. Unbeknownst to me parents looked into reform and boarding schools. I was not told I was going to HH.   I arrived at HH on May 13, 1994. I was 13 years old. I remember being so scared. My first interaction with Ronald Williams was that day. Most of the conversation was a blur, but I vividly remember he told me I would be living there for a minimum of 15 months. He said there were staff ladies who would be taking care of me and if I ever stepped out of line or became defiant, I would be brought upstairs and he would discipline me. He proceeded to pull out a long wood paddle to show me. He said two chairs would be placed over me, one over my shoulders, and the other over my legs. Two staff would sit on the chairs while he administered discipline. I was terrified at the very thought.
I was led downstairs to the basement by a staff lady. The door shut behind me and was locked.  I soon found out all the doors and windows had locks and alarms. The basement opened up as a walkout by the kitchen. The entire backyard was surrounded in a huge fence at least 15ft high. There was no way to leave. I was a prisoner. 
 I was told I would be allowed to see my parents in 3 months, my sibling in 6 months. Little did I know I would be monitored at all times, unable to talk to my family and tell them what life was really like for me.  I was required to write my parents and pastor weekly. Every letter was monitored and read. If any content was unflattering or did not portray HH or their staff, or our activities in a good light, we were required to rewrite it or our letter would not go home.  Often letters from home had blacked out content. Staff decided what we were allowed to read and receive from home. The same monitoring went for phone calls.  We were allowed one 10 minute phone call home each month. On our birthday month we received an extra 5 minutes.  A staff lady would dial the number, connect with our family, call us into the staff closet and sit next to us the entire time, monitoring our conversation. Our letters from home were opened and read before we received them.  We were not allowed to have communication with anyone other than through our parents.
We were dehumanized.  We became puppets. Shells of the girls we once were. We were unable to help each other. So many times I cried myself to sleep, horrified that I couldn’t speak up or help as one of the other girls were punished for some ridiculous offense that day. While I was never beaten by him over the course of my stay, many times I heard girls being beat. I witnessed girls coming back downstairs from being “disciplined”. They would be visibly shaken tear stained eyes. You could tell they had been broken.  We became hopeless, helpless and broken. 
The day I arrived I was forced to strip and shower moments after I walked through the basement door. They took my clothes while I showered and provided me a uniform. I wish I had taken a longer shower, because after that moment, every shower I had at HH was timed. We were allowed 3 minutes of running water. 10 minutes total in the bathroom stall, 2min. to undress, 3min. to shower, and 5min. to dry and dress.  After I was in their approved attire, I was led down a hall where other girls were.  Relief poured through me when I saw another girl my age. It was short lived. I asked her a question and a look of sadness filled her eyes as she nodded her head toward the staff lady. I looked at the staff lady who told me girls were not allowed to talk to each other unless they were on their talking list.
 Every single aspect of our lives were controlled. We could not use the bathroom unless it was during the allotted bathroom break. So many times over the many years I witnessed normal, healthy girls wet themselves or their bed because they were not suppose to use the bathroom and could not physically hold it. They were then forced to wear diapers and be publicly shamed and humiliated further. We could use the restroom “anytime” but they gave out a punishment so severe we would hold it as long as humanly possible. Using the restroom not on a scheduled break was instant 16 demerits.  I am positive many of us girls have experienced damaging, long term affects due to holding our urine to the point of severe pain almost daily. I regularly heard girls stirring in their beds, rocking, crying because of the pain, sitting on the edge of their bed, waiting for the clock to strike the precious moment we could get off our bed without punishment. The mind games were sickening. Most of us girls, who previously had normal menses, stopped menstruating due to the trauma, stress, and lack of nutrition our bodies were put through.
  Staff would move beds in front of the exit doors at night. As if alarms and deadbolt locks weren’t enough, they had motion lights added so that if a girl got off her bunk at night, all of the lights in the dorm would turn on.  
Demerits were handed out liberally.  If you accumulated more than 15 demerits, you had to write sentences. (a scripture verse was a sentence) 16 demerits=100 verses,  17demerits =200 verses,  18 demerits =300 verses,  19 demerits =400 verses,  20 demerits =500 verses. Writing out God’s word was their punishment, along with no talking all week, isolation, no treats, or any extras of any kind (birthday parties, special occasions, etc.)We were forced to wear our uniform to church services to further distinguish our shame. We would also be removed from outside crew for the week if you were deemed lucky enough to be on outside crew. Outside crew meant you were trusted enough not to run away. (Stockholm syndrome at its finest)  If a girl made it to outside crew status, she would walk (supervised the entire time by staff ) through the briefly unlocked door, work outside, and walk right back down into captivity.  We did so much manual labor that did not pertain to us girls, but help was needed by other staff, and we were free labor. We hauled massive heavy 5 gallon buckets, unloaded food trucks, cleaned the outdoor walk in freezer, thoroughly cleaned staff member’s homes and personal quarters, weeding their personal gardens, detailing their vehicles, raking and weeding  the outside grounds and collated so much scripture ( they had a printing press and made little booklets of scripture) when they needed it.    Demerits were given for all sorts of things, a chore not passing the white glove test, looking in the mirror at the same time as another student who not on your talking list.  Infractions were decided by the staff. It was easy to accumulate demerits.   I forgot my hairbrush on the dorm ledge and received 15 demerits for it. Already having had 4 demerits at the end of the week, that put me at 19 demerits which instantly gave me sentences the next week. This occurred regularly.  The staff laughed at me when I asked if we were allowed to earn merits too. There was a rule book we had to read and initial monthly. It was a thick rule book with so many rules you probably wouldn’t believe me unless you read it for yourself.
We were forced to eat and drink excessive amounts of liquids and foods at times and other times went hungry, our stomachs would growl most often on Saturdays & Sundays. Saturday we would be fed two meals and Sunday, being the observed Sabbath, very light food.  Food was mostly donated. Often food was rotten, expired, or just a mystery. They struggled to meet our nutritional needs.  I literally cringe when I hear Ronald Williams laugh at how much teen girls eat, as if it was some joke. Every bit of food was measured. We were forced to drink powdered milk.  I will never forget a new girl arrived and told the staff she was allergic to dairy. The staff did not believe her and told her to drink it anyway. She pleaded with them to talk to her parents. They would not listen to her and forced her to drink it. She drank it and within moments she vomited. She turned bright red and broke out in hives. They made her clean it up.
After 15 months of following the rules and doing what I was told, I went home. Unfortunately, nothing had changed in our home.  I still struggled. I never shared what truly happened at HH with my family.I had been brainwashed into believing that was acceptable behavior.  Talking about HH was one of the last things I wanted to discuss. I was free.  I was still unhappy in our home. The fighting continued. Discord, all the time. Looking back, my parents had to have known that if they sent me back to HH, they wouldn’t have to deal with me or my unhappiness.  I was so shocked the 2nd time my dad pulled up the drive at HH. I couldn’t believe they were doing this, again. I was numb.  I was now 15. I remember the first counseling session after I arrived back at HH. Ronald Williams asked me why I was back. I said I didn’t know why. I hadn’t done anything wrong. He asked me if I was still a virgin. It felt gross discussing this with him. I assured him no sex, no drugs, no alcohol. I had friends my parents didn’t approve of and I was generally unhappy. That was my offense.
  I was given a medical “exam” while at HH. I was forced. There was no option. I was brought into the staff closet by the compound nurse. It was a very tiny room which housed some staff belongings.   An old medical table was uncovered and some man preformed the exam. I had no choice. I had never met him before and never met him again. I was outnumbered physically. There was nothing professional about that exam. It was violating and traumatic. I have had lasting trauma as a result of that forced exam.
Medical care was a joke. If you were ill, you were forced to be in bed for 24hours. If you threw up you cleaned it up immediately. Staff would not offer help or support.  We were treated as an inconvenience. We would be required to stay on the bed for 24 hours.  It was not an experience any girl would enjoy.   You were given a can of ensure, no comfort food was allowed, such as a bowl of soup. The only comfort or affection I was given while at HH was a hug by my parents every 3 months. THREE PLUS YEARS. As a mother of 5 children, this alone brings tears to my eyes and breaks my heart.  We were developing young girls. This alone will have damaging psychological impact.
The sexual, physical, mental, emotional & spiritual abuse I experienced and witnessed while at HH have had lasting effects on my life.  What us girls were put through was not done in the name of God. We lived in a constant state of perpetual fear.  We could never be good enough.  We were not hardened criminals, yet we were treated like it. At night as we fell asleep we were often repeatedly subjected to listening to audio religious scare tactical propaganda. More brainwashing as we went to sleep. I cannot remember the name of one the audio tapes,  but I distinctly remember the sound of hearing  souls crying in hell, as they were tormented.  I remember praying to God and wondering if this is what He heard from our minds at night as us girls lay in bed. Our heartache. Our desperation.  We were forced to be silent, in our beds, while we listened to these tapes. Submission and obedience was key.  As a Christian woman who knows and understands what the Bible says, the methods HH used are more cult like than Christ like.

None of the staff ladies I was surrounded with in the 3 plus year span I was there had any formal training to deal with “troubled” girls. The school is not credited.  There is no program that the family of these “troubled” girls are required to complete at home.  No counseling is provided for the family as a whole. “Troubled” girls don’t arrive at this point in their life all on their own.  I have heard so many horror stories from other HH survivors. As mandated reporters, HH staff have covered up and lied to so many people in efforts to keep the doors of HH open. HH sounds wonderful in the brochure. They lead you to believe they are a ministry serving troubled girls out of the kindness of their hearts.  They portray that girls will experience a balanced life in their stay at HH.  In reality they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, sucking parents financially dry and accepting donations and raising support as they “voluntarily” serve Christ.  They lure in parents who are desperate to help their daughters, preying on families who are searching for help.  They forced obedience through fear, but they did little to reach my heart.   Unfortunately HH still has their doors open and still has girls forced in captivity as I write this. 

1 comment:

  1. So so sorry! I am a product of Lester Roloffs Home in Hattiesburg Mississippi called Bethesda home for girls. Same story stated finally shut it down. Hard to talk about! Just wanted to say hello