Times-Union Newspaper

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Local Hephzibah House Task Force Formed

Tim Robertson
Staff Writer

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Twice within the past five months, former students of Hephzibah House, a boarding school for girls in Warsaw, have stood in front of the Kosciusko County Courthouse demonstrating to raise awareness of alleged abuse they claim they suffered while students at the school.

Some local residents heard their message and have decided to get involved in the former students' efforts to change Indiana law.

"When (the former students) came to town, they brought a lot of awareness of something that people in town didn't even know we had," said Becky Moreno, Winona Lake.

Moreno, victims' assistance coordinator at the Warsaw Police Department, is organizing a task force for people who are concerned about the claims that students were abused at Hephzibah House. She said the goal of the task force is to change what they say is a gap in Indiana's laws. The gap concerns the state's code regarding the duties of the Department of Child Services and child care institutions operated by private institutions.

Hephzibah House is a private, not-for-profit organization connected to Believers Baptist Church, Winona Lake. That means the school isn't under any government oversight with regard to activities that take place on the campus. Former Hephzibah House students allege, without that accountability, they underwent physical, mental and emotional abuse which included beatings, humiliation and isolation.

Hephzibah House released a statement in June when former students were demonstrating in Warsaw, stating they could not grant any interviews. In the release, Hephzibah staff wrote, "Because of the nature of our work, which includes working with minors and the resulting needs for privacy of the girls and their parents, tours of the facility, interviews with staff members or students and other normal needs of the news media cannot be honored."

However, the school did provide letters from supporters and former students, all denying that physical, emotional or mental abuse took place at the school.

Moreno said the task force she is organizing is aimed at helping all children in private residential facilities in Indiana.

"It's not churches or adult organizations," she said. "We're talking about where children are involved. If they aren't being held accountable, is that safe for these children?"

When former Hephzibah House students came to Warsaw in July, they met with Dist. 18 State Representative Dave Wolkins, Winona Lake, to try to enlist his support to begin an initiative to examine the state laws in Indianapolis. However, after the meeting, Wolkins said he doesn't support a change that would give the government more supervision of private religious organizations.

Hephzibah House staff provided a statement reporting that Wolkins toured their facilities July 10. The statement claimed Wolkins has toured the facility "several times over the last several years."

According to the statement, "Wolkins and others toured the educational and recreation areas, as well as the commercial kitchen, ministry property and maintenance shop."

Wolkins said during his tour of Hephzibah House he questioned the school's director Ron Williams about the accusations against the school staff.

"I asked Dr. Williams about them, he says there's a grain of truth to all of them, depending on how you interpret it," Wolkins said.

As for the women's accusations against the school, Wolkins said, "I have no doubts that they are sincere. They felt intimidated, I have no doubt. But, that is all part of the program. Behavior modification we would call it."

He said the women's impression that what they underwent was abuse is just one interpretation.

"They believe they were abused and I guarantee you Dr. Williams believes they were not abused," he said. "To me, abuse has to have some intent of some sort. I am convinced that everything they're doing out there, they're doing with the best intentions of changing the behavior of the girls who come there."

Wolkins said he was happy to meet with the women, but he is not ready to support their initiative, which he does not expect to gain steam in Indianapolis.

"This is a pretty conservative state," he said. "I think they would have a very hard time being successful in doing it."

Moreno said, right now, her task force is just a handful of people. They plan to have their first meeting today at 7:30 p.m.

"I'm hoping, as we meet and get a plan, that more people will want to get involved," she said.

Gabriella Fleury, Wisconsin, is a former Hephzibah House student. Fleury said she was a student at the school from August 1989 to November 1990. She has helped organize the recent demonstrations at the courthouse. She said the formation of the local task force is encouraging.

"At first, we weren't really convinced that anyone in the community really cared," she said. "It seems that our past trips here have really paid off."

Fleury said she is glad to see local awareness of her and other former students' claims turn into action.

"Now they feel there's something they can do to help since it's something affecting their community," she said.

The first meeting of the task force coincides with another local demonstration by Fleury and other Hephzibah House students. Fleury said about eight former Hephzibah House students, along with several students from another program headquartered in Indianapolis, will demonstrate in front of the courthouse Friday at 11 a.m.

For more information about the task force, call Moreno at 574-372-9539.

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