Former Hephzibah House Students Demonstrate

This story courtesy of Times-Union.

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The three women came from different states. They hadn’t met in person before, but they stood together Wednesday in front of the Kosciusko County Courthouse to raise awareness of the abuse they allege they and other girls suffered when they were students at Hephzibah House, a boarding school for girls in Warsaw.

“The first day I was there, I was brutally beaten,” said Jennifer Sengpiehl, of Virginia.

Sengpiehl said she was a student at Hephzibah House when she was a teenager, from 1996 to 1997. She said her first day at Hephzibah House was one of the worst.

“They made me lie face down on the floor,” said Sengpiehl. “A lady sat on my arms, and another lady sat on my legs, and someone else beat me with a big piece of board. They were quoting Bible verses and beating me.”

Other hardships the women said they and other students experienced at Hephzibah House included verbal bullying by staff, being forbidden to talk to or look at any other students for months at a time, students being forced to eat their own vomit, and shaming punishments such as making teenage girls wear diapers.

Despite the claims of the former students, there are no open investigations regarding abuse at Hephzibah House, according to Susan Tielking, spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Child Services.

A spokesman for Kosciusko County Prosecutor Steve Hearn said his office is not investigating.

Hephzibah House officials, while refusing to comment, did provide a number of testimonial letters from former students who found their programs to be a positive experience. All the students’ letters denied that physical, emotional or mental abuse took place at the school.

A couple of hours before their demonstration at the courthouse, Sengpiehl; Gabriella Fleury, of Wisconsin; and Susan Grotte, of Minnesota; sat down in the lobby of a local hotel to tell their stories.

Fleury said she was a student at Hephzibah House from August 1989 to November 1990. Grotte said she was a student at the school from February 1981 to July 1983.

The women said Hephzibah House was an environment completely controlled by the school’s staff and director Pastor Ronald Williams. They said the little communication they were allowed with the outside world came in the form of censored letters to and from their families and brief telephone calls with family in which a school staff member listened in. The women said their daily activities were scheduled and structured all the way down to their bathroom activities.

“Every time we went to the bathroom, we had to record it,” said Grotte, “and not just that we went to the bathroom, but whether we had a bowl movement and the amount.”

“We didn’t record it in a private file either,” said Sengpiehl. “It was on a public board. We called it the ‘BM board.'”

The women said their days at Hephzibah House were spent doing chores in and around the school campus at 2277 E. Pierceton Road, memorizing Bible verses and doing school work. They said all their activities were closely monitored by school staff.

“There were alarms on the windows and doors so we couldn’t get out,” Fleury said.

Fleury said she and Grotte and Sengpiehl met through several Web sites run by former Hephzibah students. She said, on the sites, students share their stories and support each other.

Grotte said she found the Web sites ironically through contact with Williams. “Williams called me and asked me to write him a letter to say I was never abused at Hephzibah House and that I hadn’t seen anyone else abused there,” Grotte said. “He told me some former students had started an evil Web site against Hephzibah House.”

Wednesday, the women held signs with slogans like “Help Stop Abuse” and “Hephzibah: Abusing girls since 1974”, and handed out fliers detailing the abuses they said they and others suffered at Hephzibah House.

“I feel like we’re campaigning for awareness,” said Fleury. “We know it will be hard to close it, but we want to bring awareness of what’s going on in this locked-up facility. Most people who live here probably don’t know that place exists.”

Fleury said Wednesday’s demonstration was aimed at bringing change.

“Our demonstration is in protest of the abuse that has been taking place at Hephzibah House for the past 30 years,” she said. “We want to bring attention to the fact that this facility has been operating over 30 years and it has yet to be held accountable to anyone. This facility is not licensed and it has never been regulated by the state of Indiana. There needs to be a change in state law, and hopefully our demonstration can draw attention to that fact.”

The women weren’t standing alone Wednesday. Fleury’s mother, Marie Fleury, and Kevin Smith, of Florida, whose niece was recently a student at Hephzibah House, also took part in the demonstration.

“We didn’t realize the home was like that,” Marie Fleury said. “We didn’t do our homework.”

Marie Fleury said, looking back, she and her husband can see hints that something was wrong when their daughter was at the school.

“There was an extreme lack of communication,” she said. “We would ask her questions and her answers would be evasive.”

Marie Fleury said, after her daughter returned from Hephzibah House, it took a while before she began to talk about her experience.

“When she got home, she was very quiet and much more ‘quote’ obedient,” Marie Fleury said. “It really took a few years before she was able to tell us. It was devastating to us as a family to find out what had happened. That’s why I’m here, because I don’t want other parents to make the same mistakes.”

Hephzibah House Director Ron Williams and other school staff declined to be interviewed Wednesday, but provided a press release and 15 letters from parents and former Hephzibah House students voicing support for the school.

According to the press release, Hephzibah House was founded in 1971 and is a 501(c)3 Christian boarding school affiliated with Believers Baptist Church, located on the same property as Hephzibah House and headquartered at 508 School St., Winona Lake.

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. While all of us at Hephzibah House certainly embrace and support a free press, we hope you can understand that the nature of our work here demands such a position.”

According to the release, Hephzibah House is routinely inspected for safety by fire and health department officials, students are involved in regular schooling, and parents and pastors may make regular phone calls and personal visits during their girls’ stay there.

“Over the years, we have taken in troubled teenaged girls who were brought to us by anxious parents and guardians who were concerned about the spiritual direction in which their daughters were going,” Hephzibah staff wrote in the release. “Through separation from bad influences and through the Word of God, we have seen many young hearts turn around and become sweet respectful young ladies as well as productive citizens.”

All the letters denied that physical, emotional or mental abuse took place at the school.

One letter is signed by Mary R. Speckels, of Alaska, who claims to have been a student at the school from June 1997 to October 1998.

Speckels wrote, “After my experience at Hephzibah House as a student, I would highly recommend it to parents for their struggling teenage girls. The effect it had on my life was very dramatic and completely positive.”

In a letter from Smith’s niece’s parents, Joseph and Karen Oberle, the Oberles wrote, “The results we have seen from Caitlin’s stay at Hephzibah House are higher moral standard, respect for authority, self-confidence, self-motivation to complete her education, very high moral standards of cleanliness, appreciation for her family and an undeniable cheerful attitude.”

Several of the letters expressed disapproval of the accusations being brought against the school.

“I think some of you just need to grow up and stop complaining about the past,” wrote Betty Good, parent of a former Hephzibah House student, “and start being thankful you’re still alive and well and not into what you were saved from.”

Fleury, Grotte and Sengpiehl each said the trip to Warsaw was worthwhile.

“It’s been totally a positive response,” Fleury said. “If I felt that it would do more good to show up next weekend, I would.”

For more information about Hephzibah House, call the school’s office at 574-269-2376 or 574-269-2375.

For more information about former students’ accusations against the school, visit http://www.formerhephzibahgirls.webs.org or http://www.hephzibahhouse.com or http://www.hephzibah-girls.blogspot.com

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6 Responses

  1. Good job, girls!

  2. INTERVIEWS are available to view on FOX 28 for a limited time only!!!

    http://www.fox28.com/Global/story.asp?s=8487558

    above the HH sign is the video camera link to click on

  3. kevin,

    Thanks for the link! I’ve posted the story.

    — Danni

  4. If I could only tell you what my daughter was doing to herself before she and I drove the 2400 miles or more with our church deacon and his wife. I had enough money in my pocket that I even thought about taking her and running from my family at home in Idaho. Just about died of a broken heart from her angriness at me for doing this.
    I had never told her and I damn sure don’t want to tell you strangers but if you can only understand that in my daughter’s case. She had gotten into alcohol, drugs, cutting and running away at only 13. She lived with every relative we had and my husband and I were always there when her dad brought her back. Oh, let me make myself clear. She was never sent away by me but is a master story teller. He’d show up and “rescue” her and then after two weeks of fun with dad he’d leave her where ever he could and she’d start in accusing others of things that never happened but I’m still glad she was a liar about some things because if the stories had been true…A lie’s guilt will pass quicker than shame.
    At 14 she’d had some run ins with the law over her alcoholism. She and another boy had managed to get Vodka and the boy snorted powdered cold medicine. The kind that you warm up in hot water.
    He almost died and my daughter knew if she got caught again drinking that this time will be juvenile hall. She opted to help this boy and in fear of incarceration she took off. I had people, police and well doers searching for her to come home.
    She’s very pretty and very vulnerable. After 5 days I assumed the worst and reported her to the Amber alert people. I caught a call and went and brought her back. She’d been at a drug dealer’s house in Montana and was scared.
    Unlike her I grew up in Los Angeles. Little did she know that although I had a good home and even better grades I turned to the streets and the scene at an early age.
    Have any of you been inside Los Padrinos or Central Juvenile halls in California? There was gang bangers, rats, concrete and sorrow. I was in one time when an 8 year old girl was brought in for murdering a rival gang member. She was so proud, held her head high knowing in her mind that she got her older brother’s enemy and what were they going to do to her at 8?
    When we walked out of our cells there was no talking. If you didn’t keep your hands at your sides you got locked down with no meal. Gang signs…There were boys in the other units but no eye contact was allowed. I kept my head down, my eyes on my feet and my hands flat against my thighs when ever I left my cell. This place had a mix of truant teens, runaways (it was illegal then), cigarette smokers, kids that were taken from their parents and the foster homes were too full so they kept us in there with gang bangers, murderers, armed robbers, you get it?
    I’m white too on top of it. Even on the streets I took my life in my own hands going to school and being a good girl. That’s why we left.
    So, when I hear this about HH and this is old news if even 100% truth. I had my momma send me to bed with a smack on my rear end and an empty belly. I was reassured they did away with corporal punishment. Just like my school did in the late 70’s. I had to write. I had to write and tell you what I saw when I first arrived at the school. I took a lengthy tour and it only took Dr Ron’s firm handshake to calm my nerves. When I saw the living quarters and the living room areas with all the stuffed animals and the nice ladies in modest clothing and being teens I started to cry. I told her (my girl) she may never have to know the places I spent time in if she could just follow their program.
    God commands us to raise our children in the admonition of the Lord. When a child is trained up in the way they should go it will follow them into maturity and not depart from them.
    I talk freely with her in letters and appointed calls but when you take in children as broken as some of these are/were it is psychologically imperative to get them into a routine. Get them to clean up after them selves and be on time and be modest so you can have a pure body for a godly husband. The schedule and the consistency was the first thing any parent has to get into a child so they become could employees and reliable leaders in their adult years.
    Public school teens use serious peer pressure to cause your children to do bad things. Shoplifting, drinking, smoking, staying out late, sex even! IF HH uses the silent treatment as a nonthreatening or nonphysical way to get these girls to be in a positive peer acceptance situation then I commend them.
    How did my girl get away with all this bad stuff? You tell me! I was the mom who showed up unannounced at games, dances and went on the youth outings but she’d still get in trouble. When she ran away the last time before the HH I heard so many things about me and my husband that it all became very clear very quick. She told her friends that it was my husband and I supplying her with booze and drugs. So in a community of 560 population and families new or old we had severe scrutiny on top of heartache. The principal used to follow me around whenever I came to the school. I knew why later.
    The distance wasn’t a choice there are only two schools of the quality of education and aligning of our doctrinal beliefs that took girls who don’t want to be there. This has been the hardest but she has been there almost long enough to come home and when I got my last package of photos from HH I saw my girl like I hadn’t seen her since before her dad’s divorce. She’s 15 now and obviously a young lady coming into womanhood but she’s there behind those eyes and smile. I have all her school pictures down both sides of my hallways as many proud moms do and now others can see it too.
    Regulation isn’t a bad idea but when the state interferes with the church then we are both on uneven ground. As far as the girls being loved. I know they are! Fear doesn’t put back into my daughter what these faithful missionaries have. Money? My husband lost his job and in September I wasn’t able to make the monthly tuition which is exactly what HH gets charged for the PACE packets because I had to find out to follow through after she returns here. The deacon paid a few months until an economical situation interrupted his income too. So don’t make up another doubt for obviously involved and compassionate people that do care enough to do what they have thus far.
    So we both sit and wait. She will face a judge still but then there’s the extra blessing in HH. After taking her to HH the judge will be aware that as parents and Christian parents we went above and beyond to ensure her safety rehabilitation and opportunity to overcome her personal crisis. If we are even 1/10 as committed to her after care it still would fall short of their loyalty and dedication.
    As I close this lengthy email which is being sent to all the other officials involved I would beseech you to have compassion on those young ladies before you go storming in their with camera crews and NBC Nightly news. They are young children who’ve strayed and are recovering to the narrow path and not to be made pawns in some bitter, unforgiving others feud. If my girl ends up on TV because of your lack of discretion and an equally lacking respect for her privacy. What the future might be like for her to be flaunted in the public eye and have another obstacle to deal with I am pretty sure that as her parent, with her being in HH staff care under my permission and authority plus a minor in a private facility that it is the parents constitutionally guaranteed right to do any and all that we can as care givers to keep them from detrimental harm of any form. Psychologically from your TV indiscretion. Psychologically if you decide to do a “Cops” style raid on the perfectly legal and US code protected religious organization and drag the girls out and traumatize them as they await transportation home, you might want to reconsider all this bravado and hype that these now grown woman are stirring up in you men in position of leadership.
    Just remember that it wasn’t a man who first disobeyed God in Eden. It was one of us, Eve that did and took Adam down with the rest of us. Be kind and do what you have the power of the law to get done but I promise you as a US patriot I will make this the biggest scene nationwide for the state of Indiana as Hurricane Katrina accomplished if if you cause any interruption or interference with custodial rights.
    We got skinheads here home schooling their kids and teaching them to shoot guns, make bombs and hate anybody who isn’t 100% white. They have their babies in the same room as they cook their meth and we done a fine job of putting a lot of them in jail or drug court. With their kids taken away into foster care but that was criminal. Definitely not in the best interests of a child.
    This situation you leaders and enforcement folks have is a thin line between custodial interference and Child protection. It’s also on the verge of 4th amendment right to privacy. Just because you made HR 6358 a bill so you could hide behind it as law won’t protect you from the repercussion of that type of invasion of privacy which has been illegal a lot longer than this type of good ole boy politics.
    Most Seriously and Sincerely Concerned,
    HH Parents Mr & Mrs. Lorraine Kenitzki

  5. Thank you for supporting the Sisters of Survival. We have almost 100 women who have come forward to report the Williams and Hephzibah House as an abusive cult.

    Lorriane, I’m sorry about your daughters struggles, and I pray God will help her. I think that the press have been gracious and respectful to the minorities and the parents invloved in HH. I would think if HH is really helping your daughter, she would welcome the chance to go on television and share her faith in God. We had a former lady come for this week who just left HH this year. She said the beatings have stopped b/c of us speaking out. Sadly, Ron and Patti still treat the young ladies as worthless. Not much has changed there, b/c that’s how they treated all of us in 1994. I hope you take the chance to read the testimonies on formerhpehizahgirls.web.com Better yet, just show up unannounced at HH and demand to see your daughter and see how ron reacts.

    • You have ALL of my support, prayers and blessing!!! I know you women are telling the truth and I will do anything I can to support you in your endeavor.

      — Danni

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