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16 News Now investigates: Former students speak out against religious reform school

(WNDU)
Published: Feb. 24, 2020 at 5:10 PM EST
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Hephzibah House describes itself as a private Christian boarding school for teenage girls. The school says its mission is to take in troubled girls and help them with God's love.

But dozens of women who were students there say what they experienced was not love but abuse.

"There was no free talking, no giggling, no pillow fights, no making friends," Mary Kumar explained.

She lived at Hephzibah House from 2007 to 2009. She says students were expected to do heavy labor in addition to their Bible-based education.

"A lot of on the floor work," she said. "We had to work on our knees on the floor for three or four hours every day, so when I left I had very thick callouses on my knees that would crack and bleed."

Kumar also says she didn't get proper medical care while staying at Hephzibah House.

"I had this weird ear infection while I was there because they wouldn't let us use Q-tips and I didn't have a lot of time to clean myself because of our three-minute showers. ... My ear erupted down the side of my face ... and that wasn't really given a lot of focus," she recalled.

But Kumar says other medical problems were given too much focus.

"They did an invasive exam to see why I couldn't go to the bathroom. When that could've been easily fixed with Metamucil or putting us on a better diet," she said. "... I saw that with a lot of other students. They would have these horrible illnesses or sicknesses and they would be made fun of or treated like garbage, but for things like that we were given forced pelvic exams or forced anal exams ... and that doesn't make any sense to me."

Kumar says the neglect was beyond physical, leaving her unprepared for the real world.

"They really dumbed us down there, because women aren't really supposed to have a lot of thoughts or dreams besides becoming a mother. I was 18 playing dress up. What do normal 18-year-olds do?" she said.

She's not the only one who says she suffered at Hephzibah House. 16 News Now was contacted by more than a dozen women with similar experiences. There may be more.

"The number of victims that have come forward is about 300," Kumar said.

There are accusations of abuse dating back to the 1980s.

Eighteen-year-old Olivia Lambright just left the school last June. She says she was spanked during her five years there.

"When you start spanking all the way down to your thighs, you have bruises on your thighs instead just on your bottom. I would say that's going too far. But the one thing that they would tell me was, 'This is the way God wants us to do it, and this is your fault this is happening,'" Lambright explained.

She says humiliation is a daily part of life in the dorms and at church for Hephzibah House students.

"At night you had a 10:30 bathroom break and a 2 a.m. bathroom break, and there will be times where they take the 10:30 and they miss the 2 a.m. bathroom break. And the girls are having accidents ... and that's what happened to me," she said. "I had an accident and they were like, 'Oh! You have to wear diapers now.'"

Lambright told 16 News Now she had to carry a pink mat to church after that incident, which she felt was done to humiliate her.

With so many woman contacting 16 News Now, we reached out to Hephzibah House. The school gave us written statements refuting the claims.

In response to the accusation that they conduct child labor, the school said it does require students to do daily chores but does not overwork them.

When it comes to paddling the girls too hard, the school said they have not used corporal correction for years. They also refuted claims that they keep students locked in a basement.

Dr. Ron Williams founded Hephzibah House in 1971. 16 News Now requested an interview with him, and he agreed to send us prerecorded responses to our questions.

Williams said the school and its staff do the Lord's work in line with fundamentalist Baptist teachings.

"There are myriads of troubled teenage girls in this world, and we can't help all of them, but, praise God, we can help some. And we've received some from every one of the 50 states and from some foreign countries because of missionaries having trouble with their daughters," Williams said.

He said he is stumped by the abuse accusations.

"The leaders of most of our critics, when they left our ministry, were very cordial, friendly, amiable. Would call us, stay in touch, invite us to their weddings, so now they are leading a whole group against us ... which is really inexplicable to us," he said.

But while Williams tours the country speaking to churchgoers about home and family, his son Ben is speaking out against his father's school.

"The things that are happening at Hephzibah House are definitely cultish. Are they 100% cult? No. But are they cultish? Absolutely. And that is why there's a fear, that is why there's devout loyalty. ... There's good people there to this day ... but when you get captured into that culture, it takes years for you to literally deprogram," Ben Williams explained.

He says he wants the community to know about the physical and emotional abuse he both saw and endured growing up at Hephzibah House. That includes issues he says the school has with the quality of food being served.

"We would get cases of, banana boxes full of dented cans that had no labels. The girls would open them up, and they would just starting dumping. And yes, every once in a while ... they deny this but every once in a while a can of dog food would get dropped in. That is true. So 'surprise soup' would be multiple different soups dumped in, stir it up, and that was the slop that they were served," Ben Williams said.

The Kosciusko County health inspector documented a formal complaint about the food quality just last month, including that students were "served something resembling dog food" and that they "became ill multiple times from food and was then shamed for being ill".

In addition to documenting the complaint, the health inspector also cited Hephzibah House for a few of its procedures involving food preparations.

Ben Williams tells us he is concerned that the girls currently enrolled at Hephzibah House are being abused.

"Nothing's changed in the belief structure. When you have an abuser that will not acknowledge abuse and won't repent of the abuse and won't be honest about the abuse, more than likely they're still going to be an abuser," he said.

Still, without proof of a crime, law enforcement officials say little can be done. Kosciusko County Sheriff Kyle Dukes says that of allegations investigated in the past 20 years, no criminal charges were ever filed.

Hephzibah House told 16 News Now the Department of Child Services visited in January and nothing was found. We have been unable to get that confirmed with DCS.

There is no agency overseeing the quality of education or care at the school because Indiana law allows for boarding schools to operate without a license due to a religious exemption.

DCS says that's why there are no formal inspections unless child neglect or abuse is reported, and even then they don't investigate claims against unlicensed facilities without law enforcement.

Those who say they were abused will continue to try to get Hephzibah House shut down.

"I am begging you from my heart, please don't send your daughter to this Hephzibah House, because it is not a good place. It's not. It will ruin your daughter physically, mentally, emotionally," Lambright pleaded.

Kumar has a similar message.

"I will not shut up. Neither will the rest of us. There's girls there right now ... and my heart hurts for them every day," she said.

Hephzibah House tells 16 News Now there are currently four girls enrolled at the reform school.

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