Court Puts 6 in Family at Bonny Oaks
Source: The Chattanooga Times/September 20, 1977
By Libby Wann
The Yellow Deli took the six small children of Mrs.Wilma Castleberry, separated them among Yellow Deli in three states, made at least one wash dishes until “11 or 12 at night” and refused to return them to their family until the police ordered them to do so, the children’s mother testified Monday in Juvenile Court. Conflicting testimony concerning the status of three girls and three boys, aged seven to 12-years-old, resulted in Juvenile Court Judge Dixie Smith ordering the youngsters declared dependent and neglected and placed in the custody of Bonny Oaks School. Mrs. Castleberry’s wishes in petitioning the court.
In delivering the order, Judge Smith had some advice for the two representatives of the Yellow Deli, a group of sandwich shops whose proceeds support the Vine Community Christian Church [now known as the "Twelve Tribes'] here. “It is my suggestion to the Vine Community Church that before you take custody of children, that you should contact some agency to do it legally,” the judge admonished. “If it is not done legally you are all in jeopardy as a community, a church and individually,” he continued.
Mrs. Castleberry told the court she was divorced from her husband in February of this year, and although she is now employed, her first efforts to support her family were unsuccessful. When her rent became two months in arrears, Mrs. Castleberry took the six children to her mother-in-law’s house, and “I told him (the husband) to keep them until I could get straightened out. The husband, James Eugene Castleberry, a $4.50 an hour employee at Millwrights Inc. took the children and, “I wrote out a statement giving them (the Vine Community Christian Church) Custody of the children,” he testified.
Denying he was a member of the church to which he had given his children and also stating he had a personal friendship with the Yellow Deli operators, Castleberry told the court he “could see the children any time I wanted.” But testimony from representatives of the Vine Church indicated that: Castleberry had made little effort in the past few months to contact any of his six children. The father told judge Smith that the Yellow Deli officials told him the children would not be separated.
“You knew where your children were and you didn’t tell your wife?” judge Smith questioned. and Castleberry nodded.
Dickie Cantrell, the bearded deacon of the Vine Church and general manager of the Yellow Deli, told the court that when the six children were brought to him “they had the habit of bed-wetting…and it was really hard to help them…when they were all together.” So two of the children were sent to Dalton to live with Michael Morgan, another Yellow Deli employee testifying in the case. Two more children remained here in Chattanooga, one went to Menone and the oldest boy was in the Trenton Yellow Deli, Mrs. Castleberry said.
A friend of the mother saw this eldest son working the Yellow Deli in Trenton. She called Mrs. Castleberry because the friend knew the mother had been vainly attempting to locate her children since March. The discovery of her oldest boy led Mrs. Castleberry and the two friends with whom she is living, Mr. and Mrs. Giamportane, to a “baptism” on Lake Chickamauga where all the Castleberry children were united in early September. “We went to this baptism at 9:30 in the morning and sat through their service or whatever till 6.” Mrs. Giamportone said.
“The kids saw their mother and they all came running over,” Mr. Giamportone related. “And their mother said, Do you like it? Giamportone said. “And the lads said, No, they make us to work to 10 or 11 at night. What do you work at? Washing the dishes,” Giamportone testified. When judge Smith questioned the Vine Church deacon Cantrell about working the 11-year-old child until 11 p.m. the deacon flatly denied it. “It’s just totally wrong. I would hope the Lord would strike us all dead if we did that,” Cantrell said. “Don’t do that in here please sir,” Smith answered.
Cantrell was caring for two of the Castleberry boys and Morgan in Dalton had two of the girls. “My wife Emily and I have been taking care of (the two small girls) and we really love them. If it’s the Lord’s will they will stay with us,” Morgan said.
“This court is in no position to judge religions,” Smith said in summary “This woman (Mrs. Castleberry) has not known where her children have been for six months. This is not right. This is not fair play,” Smith continued. “You have violated one of the unwritten rules–if at all possible keep the family together,” the judge continued.
“Mother and daddy,” Smith addressed the parents, “God has seen fit to give you six children. There are thousands of people who just want one. You assume a responsibility to love and care for them. These children thus far have not been given much,” he said.
Smith also directed Bonny Oaks to tell him of the parents visiting habits. “I want to know which parent isn’t coming to visit,” he said. “You owe these six children a whole lot,” he told Mr. and Mrs. Castleberry.
On the subject of the alleged Yellow Deli control of the small children, Smith said, “I think the community should know the entire operation.”