The raid revisited: Island Pond community heals wounds from 1984
From The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press, June 18, 2000
By Nancy Bazilchuk
ISLAND POND — John Dodge, 23, looked a little out of place at the Twelve Tribes church’s community gathering Saturday. An Island Pond native, he grew up calling the church members “Moonies,” threw pennies on the roofs of their houses in the dark and taunted their children.
“Remember a bunch of you guys got your sleds stolen?” he said, looking out at the 200 people who crowded under a big white tent decorated with religious banners for the event. “Yeah, that was us.”
Laughter, not anger, met Dodge’s confession because, as he told the crowd, he had come to respect and understand the community.
Dodge’s reconciliation was part of a weekend event in which the Twelve Tribes community, once known as the Northeast Kingdom Community Church, gathered and invited the public to join in remembering the day 16 years ago — June 22, 1984 — when the state raided the community. Ninety state troopers and 50 social workers took 112 children into custody amid allegations of child abuse.
For the church this was a celebration because Judge Frank Mahady dismissed the state’s request to hold the children so they could be examined for evidence of abuse. The state dropped its case. Church leaders say it affirms their religious rights and limits the police power of the state. A documentary about the raid, “1984 Revisited,” will be shown at the gathering today.
Yet for some who organized the raid, along with some who have left the church, the reunion is a painful reminder that the state failed to protect children from abuse. Philip H. White, 52, who at the time of the raid was Orleans County state’s attorney, says he still believes the church’s disciplinary practices were harmful. The raid’s failure taught him two things.
“The first lesson is that it is still OK for a parent to beat their children, especially if they have a religious justification for it,” said White, now a Montpelier attorney. “The second lesson is that we still have not found a satisfactory approach to preventing and addressing child abuse issues when they occur in closed religious communities.”
Discipline or abuse?
The Northeast Kingdom Community Church took root in Island Pond in the summer of 1978. A resident, Andre Masse, had invited church leader Elbert Eugene Spriggs Jr. to the village to help found a religious community. Spriggs came from Tennessee, where he had already founded a church group. Almost immediately, the Island Pond group tripled in size from its 20 original members to 60.
Island Pond is a rural community of about 1,500 people; from the beginning, the relationship between the church’s bearded men and kerchiefed women and the rest of the townspeople was uneasy.
Parents watched in horror as their adult children joined the church, handing over their possessions and pledging themselves to the church community. The church group lived in communal housing — sometimes a little too communal for village residents. Eventually the town of Brighton, which includes the village of Island Pond, told the group they were violating town ordinances against over-occupancy.
Almost from the beginning, there were defectors, and stories about how children were disciplined by being struck with thin wooden rods called balloon sticks. About the discipline there is no dispute. Church leaders believe the Bible’s admonition that to spare the rod is to spoil the child.
“We don’t believe that spanking is child abuse … it is reasonable to train a child that way,” says Brian Fenster, a church member and spokesman. “But we don’t believe that spanking means beating to a bloody pulp.”
Others saw it differently.
“They beat their children,” said Suzanne Cloutier-Fletcher, 49, who opened her Island Pond home to more than three dozen adults and children who left the church in the years around the raid.
Part of the problem was that church members schooled their children apart from the regular schools. That meant there were no teachers or other authority figures to independently evaluate the children. For some time, church members didn’t register births or deaths. Only three births had been registered to church members in the five years after the church moved to Island Pond.
At the same time, news of the sometimes alarming behavior of religious cults frightened residents. For some, the Northeast Kingdom Community Church looked unnervingly like the People’s Temple, whose nearly 800 members committed mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978.
By 1984, the chorus of concerns about child abuse, combined with a number of highly publicized complaints filed against church elders, brought the state to a watershed. Then-Gov. Richard Snelling found himself in a fix. After days and days of debate, Snelling approved the raid.
“He was uncomfortable with it,” said the late-governor’s wife, Barbara Snelling, “but he felt it was extremely important that the state find out if the children were being abused. It is a painful memory, but I think my husband did the right thing.”
Armed with a search warrant issued by Judge Joseph J. Wolchik, 140 social workers and state troopers converged on Island Pond early June 22 and took 112 children into custody.
But because the search warrant didn’t give the state the subsequent right to detain the children, a second court hearing was necessary, with Judge Frank Mahady presiding. Mahady looked at the state’s evidence, including its inability to name individual cases of child abuse, and ruled the raid unconstitutional. The children went home and, eventually, the state’s case was dropped.
Children of the raid
Saturday in Island Pond some of those children lined the periphery of the white tent and stepped forward to tell their stories: men with short pony tails and beards, women with long hair and ankle-length calico dresses. Many of them are grown with children.
Jessica Wall, 23, remembered when the police came to take her and her father from their Island Pond home. She was 7, and terrified by the appearance of the police. The memory made her eyes well with tears.
Although she was frightened, ”I knew with all my heart I was with my father, and he was dedicated to me,” she said. ”The police said they believed we were being abused, but I didn’t know what that meant. I did gather they thought we were being mistreated.”
After Mahady released the children, Wall recalled a celebration. “That night we sang songs, and I was so secure, sitting between my parents,” she said.
Wall, who lives in the church community in Winnepeg, Canada, has two children and will discipline them as her parents disciplined her.
“Judge Mahady, he allowed my parents to teach me as they saw fit,” she said. ”Now that I have two children, I will train my children to have respect.”
Paul Sage, 34, made the news when his father, a church member, pulled him off the local school’s baseball team. He said that growing up in Island Pond, he missed some of the things other village youths had — snowmobiles and four-wheelers. But he said he and his family drew powerful solace from the church’s teachings. And yes, he said, he believed strongly in the correctness of disciplining children when they misbehave.
“Yes, my father disciplined me, and I understood when he did it, he loved me,” Sage said.
Rebecca Gonyaw, 17, did not attend Saturday’s gathering, but, speaking at her aunt’s Island Pond home, she remembered the discipline differently. Gonyaw was also a child of the raid. She was barely 2, and doesn’t remember much.
But she was raised in the church and left two years ago when her parents were told to leave the community because her two oldest brothers had voluntarily left the church. Her father has since returned.
Gonyaw says discipline was constant, and it was administered by everyone.
“It was hard; there was a lot of misjudging,” Gonyaw said. ”I always felt so bad about myself. I can’t be this certain way. Their goal is for everyone to be perfect.”
Gonyaw said church members considered her a ”wayward child.”
“I was the type that spoke my mind. … I got spanked by everybody,” she said, recounting stories of being beaten on her backside and on the bottoms of her feet. ”I was rebellious, but out here it wouldn’t be rebellion.”
She told of a life focused on chores — she stopped attending school at age 11. Chocolate was forbidden, as was television, sports and congregating in unsupervised groups of adolescents.
One time, her mother bought her a book at a yard sale, about the biblical story of Joseph and his many-colored coat.
“I love to read, and I read it, and then I let one of my friends borrow it,” she said. ”When (the elders) found out, they told her to burn it. I cried and I said, ‘Don’t burn it; I love that book.’ But she burned it.”
Life is different now. She has her own room, after years of sharing rooms with her six siblings. She likes to read romance novels, and is working toward her GED.
“I am not bitter against the community,” she said. ”I grew up with them. I do feel regret that I wasn’t able to talk to friends about things.”
More importantly, she says she doesn’t understand why the church didn’t back her family so they could stay together.
When her father returned to the church, Gonyaw’s mother, who is now in Colorado, was left to support the rest of the family on her own.
“I am upset they are breaking up families, because if the mother doesn’t want to be there, and the father does, they encourage the dad to leave the mother,” she said. ”They encouraged my dad to leave my mom. God comes first, but not in that way.”
Lessons from the raid
Marion Barnes, 87, lived next to some of the church’s housing during the raid. In fact, well before that, in 1980, a 12-year-old boy who had been punished by church elders came streaking into her home because of the severity of the beating. He begged her for asylum.
Barnes fed him two bowls of ice cream and let him spend the night. He was returned to his family the next day by authorities. She believes the church was strict about discipline, but also thinks the charges of abuse were overblown.
“They used to take those little sticks to correct the children,” she said, referring to the balloon rods. ”But as far as abusing them, I don’t think they did that.”
Chris Braithwaite, editor and publisher of The Chronicle, a weekly newspaper based in Barton, wrote about the church and the failed raid. Braithwaite did more than write about the circumstances.
He was so powerfully moved by what he saw that he did something journalists don’t typically do — he asked the state to intervene. He filed an affidavit about why he felt the state had good reason to investigate, based on his own interviews and reporting. Journalists are supposed to observe and report, but not act.
“I crossed the (journalistic) line,” he said. ”But having covered it so extensively as a reporter, I had come to believe that the state bureaucracy was totally hamstrung. … There were terribly affecting stories about very young children who were being beaten way beyond the standards of the norm.”
Braithwaite said that the failure of the raid has tarred the state’s approach to child abuse.
“The real lesson the state bureaucracy learned was don’t mess with these people, or people like these people, because your career will be ruined,” he said, referring to the dismissal of John Burchard, who was the head of the Social and Rehabilitation Services Department, and the shattering of then-Attorney General John Easton’s political career.
The church leaders ”were very bright people who sincerely believed they were obeying the direct word of God,” Braithwaite said. ”They were full of guile and deceit, and the only way they could keep their children was to bamboozle the state … people weren’t ready for this kind of sophisticated, skillful and heartfelt resistance.”
At the time of the raid, William Young was district director for the Human Services region that included the Island Pond church. Now, he’s commissioner of the Social and Rehabilitation Services Department.
He knows why the raid failed, but he doesn’t think that failure has discouraged the state’s child welfare agency from acting.
I don’t think there are any easy answers out of this, but the answer isn’t that we don’t try to protect children,” he said. ”I don’t think Vermont has backed away from child protection at all, and I don’t think there has been any tolerance for child abuse for any set of excuses. The raid was a larger group and in circumstances that made it much more difficult to meet legal requirements.”
The central abuse case
For church leader Charles ”Eddie” Wiseman, 52, the people who spoke Saturday prove the church’s success and vindicate Mahady’s ruling.
Once people get to know us in the community, they can’t generate much suspicion about us,” he said. ”Once we’re established, people that want to stir up trouble for us can’t do it.”
Wiseman knows more than most church members about controversy. He was at the center of a simple assault case the state filed in 1983 that charged he beat 13-year-old Darlynn Church with a wooden rod off and on for seven hours. The charges were dismissed because the judge ruled Wiseman had been denied a speedy trial.
Wiseman said Saturday the description of Darlynn Church’s discipline had been ”greatly exaggerated.”
“There were some powerful buzz words that people used to inflame people: Cult. Child beating,”’ he said. ”That whipped people into a frenzy. … We do know now that there are people who want to destroy religious freedom.”
A gun and a bat
Neighbor Cloutier-Fletcher still distrusts the church.
”They are clever and manipulative and they are beyond the law,” she said. When she opened her home to those who left the community, she heard stories that made her certain children were being abused. When she last saw Wiseman, years after the raid, he encouraged her to repent for what she did and said. She won’t.
“You can’t have 12 (church) elders sitting in front of me, telling me what I did and saw was wrong,” she said. ”Let me shut my eyes. … I can remember what … (one child’s) backside looked like. I remember, that’s not discipline, that’s abuse.”
Time has mellowed others. Herb Eigenrauch, 55, has a 27-year-old daughter who came to Island Pond seven years ago to talk a friend out of joining the church.
“We got a call two days later: I’m not coming back,”’ said Eigenrauch, who lives in New Jersey. Eigenrauch said he immediately feared the worst, thinking of the debacle in Waco, Texas, in which religious followers of David Koresh died in an inferno after a drawn-out federal siege.
“I got in my car, and I had a revolver under the front seat and a baseball bat in the back,” he told the gathering Saturday.
When he arrived, he found his daughter happy and at peace. In the years since, he and his wife have visited regularly, and feel satisfied the church members treat each other well. ”It ain’t for me, but she has my blessing,” he said.