Children of sect seized in Vermont

Source: the New York Times
Published: June 23, 1984

NEWPORT, Vt., June 22— About 140 state police officers and social service workers raided 20 homes near here early this morning and took into custody 112 children of the Northeast Kingdom Community Church because members had refused to answer complaints about child abuse and neglect.

However, a state judge released the children of the first 16 families to appear in court.

(By the time court action ended at 10:30 P.M., all the children and their parents were sent home, The Associated Press reported. Forty cases were dismissed when the parents refused to give the names of their children, officials said, while some other cases were continued.)

The court proceedings, held here, were closed to the public, so it was unclear why the judge, Frank Mahady, had refused prosecutors’ requests to detain the children, most of whom came from the town of Island Pond. Judge Mahady was not available for comment.

Scott Skinner, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Vermont, arrived here about midday with questions about the raid. ”Did the state overstep its bounds in a warrant that is too general?” he asked in remarks to reporters.

Duncan F. Kilmartin, a local attorney assigned to represent some of the church members, likened the raid to a pogrom. Mr. Kilmartin said he planned to get in touch with the Justice Department about possible civil rights abuses by state officials.

There was no resistance to the raid from the church members, who call themselves ”followers of the man Yeshua, the Jesus Christ of the Scriptures” and who admit to physically disciplining their children. They began settling in this part of Vermont, which is known as the Northeast Kingdom, in the late 1970′s.

The police, acting on warrants obtained by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, seized all the children under the age of 18. After they entered the homes, the police and social service workers invited parents to accompany the children to court.

Gov. Richard A. Snelling’s press secretary, David Dillon, said 112 children and about 110 adults were taken in chartered buses and police vans to Orleans District Court in Newport.

”The action was carried out after two years of effort by the state to get the parents to identify and report abuse and neglect,” Mr. Dillon said.

Some of the children appeared upset as they were escorted to the buses and vans. However, others came out smiling and holding hands with the adults as they were led away.

Later in Orleans County District Court, state officials sought emergency detention orders to hold the children for up to 72 hours. Medical personnel were on hand to examine any children ordered held. However, Defender General Andrew Crane said Judge Mahady denied the request for the first 16 families brought before the court.

The first family was driven away about 5 P.M., and three hours later a busload of families went home.

”There are juvenile cases pending before this court, and beyond that we can say nothing,” Mr. Dillon said. Prosecutors said they were under court order not to discuss the case. Raid Was at 6:30 A.M.

About 90 state troopers and 50 social service workers took part in the raid, which began shortly before 6:30 A.M. The teams moved simultaneously on the 20 homes, 19 in Island Pond and one in Barton, about 20 miles southwest. Police were seen carrying rods and switches from one of the homes.

Elwin Rabida, an Island Pond native who has lived next door to some church members for six years, said he has seen children beaten with sticks. ”I’ve seen them lick those kids something wicked,” Mr. Rabida said.

In a separate case, a church elder, Charles E. Wiseman, has been charged with simple assault. Prosecutors say he beat a 13-year-old girl with a rod from her neck to her toes over seven hours. The girl’s parents say she was disciplined for lying.

”We spank them,” said a church member who refused to give his name. ”We discipline them. Our Lord Jesus tells us to discipline them. I was spanked, you know. We don’t abuse them. We love them.”

Two other members, who also declined to identify themselves, said they spanked their children but did not beat or abuse them. The difference, they explained, is the spirit in which the spanking is done.

It is estimated that 400 members of the group live in Island Pond, a town of about 1,200 people. However, church members refused to disclose information about their membership. The men are typically bearded and wear their hair long. Many of the women wear kerchiefs covering their hair, long skirts or dresses and heavy stockings.

(The sect was founded in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1972 by Elbert Spriggs Jr,, according to The Associated Press. The church receives income from 11 businesses it operates in Vermont, including a 24-hour restaurant, Children are taught at a church-run school that has not received state certification.

(The A.P. also reported that Vermont Attorney General John Easton said an investigation by his office of the church had centered on questions of abuse and truancy and other areas, including the operation of a medical clinic without a license, the failure to register births or deaths and the failure to adhere to public building codes.)

photo of child (page 6); photo of member of sect and trooper

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