Detention center loses fight--Lawsuit pitched; Louisiana preacher holding Colorado teen will face inspection, Lou Kilzer, News Staff Writer

From the Rocky Mountain News, December 6, 1998

While Louisiana preacher Mack Ford won a skirmish with a Colorado grandmother on Thanksgiving, he lost a major battle in federal court.

The ruling may speed up a state inspection of the private Louisiana incarceration center he runs for youths, including 15-year-old Matt Grise of Colorado.

Ford, who for 27 years has run harsh detention centers for children their parents believe are wayward, had sued Louisiana to halt what he called harassment by child-welfare workers and fire marshals who sought to inspect his New Bethany Baptist Church in Arcadia.

But U.S. District Court Judge Donald Walter tossed out the lawsuit Nov 23.

That was three days before Joan Grise, Matt's grandmother, visited New Bethany and demanded that the boy be released to her custody.

Ford rejected her request and refused to let her see her grandson, an honor student who formerly lived in Rifle.

Matt was sent to New Bethany in July by his father, who won't say why.

The boy has been charged with no crime, and no court supervises his detention at New Bethany, where staff members use spanking and other forms of physical and psychological punishment to discipline the young inmates. Children held by Ford have been as young as 8.

Matt's grandmother, aunt, uncle and friends have pleaded for his release. Ford has refused to let them speak or write to Matt. He said that only Matt's father, former Coloradan Vincent Russo, may contact Matt. Russo has said Matt is happy at New Bethany and wants to stay.

Ford has consistently refused to talk to the Denver Rocky Mountain News about his program. Joan Grise said Ford told her that accusations against his church are "all lies."

A lawyer for the Louisiana fire marshal said an inspection will be conducted as soon as legally possible -- 30 days after the judge's decision. But an attorney for the Louisiana Department of Social Services said his agency will inspect the compound only if it receives a complaint.

The department received at least four complaints of child abuse at New Bethany in 1996. But when Ford was given a court order to deliver 84 boys to a local gymnasium for physical inspection, he refused, seeking a court injunction against state intervention.

Ford said in a subsequent deposition that he had closed the detention facility.

In his legal action -- which began in state court but was moved to U.S. District Court in Shreveport -- Ford asked for $80,000 for each month New Bethany was closed.

A boy who had been held at New Bethany sued Ford in federal court, alleging that he had been beaten and held in near-slavery at the compound. The boy and his mother later dropped the lawsuit.

A few weeks ago, a boy escaped from the compound and reached California, said Wayne R. Crouch, an attorney for the state fire marshal's office.

Crouch said that's when his agency learned that boys are still being held at New Bethany.

During the two-year court battle, a state social services memo surfaced that appears to confirm what several former residents have said about New Bethany.

The 1988 memo paints a stark picture of life at New Bethany, an account blending the experiences of many residents into one story of a girl named "Julie."

"Julie" said conditions were harsh and beatings frequent. At the time, New Bethany housed mostly girls.

"Julie" said she thought she was going on vacation, but her parents instead put her behind the 10-foot-high barbed-wire fences at the New Bethany compound.

As her parents drove away, she said, she was told: "You belong to us now. You have no one but us. You were reborn today when you entered here, and so you have no past, no family, nothing but us and the New Bethany home."

At one point, the memo says, "Julie" said she was struck with a board more than 100 times.

She said she was allowed to say only positive things about the compound when she talked by telephone with her parents. Saying anything else could result in beatings.

The description of "Julie's" experience at New Bethany is supported by several women or parents who have had contact with Ford and the compound.

Two Denver women who had been confined to the compound said they witnessed "mama whuppings" of 80 to 100 "licks." The Louisiana social services memo used the term mama whippings.

Amy Thomas, 20, of Denver said she lived at the Holy Highway Christian Home for Girls in Texas in 1992. She said that if girls at Holy Highway caused too much trouble, they were sent to New Bethany.

She said she made several trips to New Bethany while helping supervisors transport other girls there.

She said that one, whom she described as her best friend, was "beaten severely" at the compound. She said she has kept in contact with several of the women.

New Bethany staff members told them "that if they ever tell what goes on, they'll hunt them down and kill them," Thomas said.

"It terrified me the times I had to take the girls there," she said. "I felt bad for them."

Of Ford, she said: "He was a horrible man to meet. He puts fear into the hearts of those girls and the boys, too."

Rachel Kindred, a former Tennessee resident who lived at the facility for a year in the 1980s, said the experience traumatized her. She said it took years for her to forgive her mother, who she believes tricked her into entering the Arcadia compound.

She also said she witnessed and suffered "mama whuppings." And she said she participated in "sister treatments," in which girls beat other girls.

"I played the game," she said. "You're either the punisher or the punishee. I don't think I was scared of death, but I was scared of New Bethany."

Her letters were monitored, and she was allowed to say only positive things during a monthly five-minute phone conversation with her parents, she said.

Throughout the ordeal, she said, she believed she would get out and have a normal life. But when she finally got home, she said, she found she couldn't simply resume her old life.

"Mostly I just sat in my room and cried," she said. "I was so messed up. New Bethany was what messed me up.

"I was scared to death to turn on the TV. I was scared of newspapers. I was scared of people. I was scared to leave the house. And I had to go to school, and all these people that I had been friends with before I left -- they hadn't changed, but I was afraid of them, too."

Now she's campaigning against New Bethany. She gathered the affidavits, from former residents of the compound, that resulted in the 1996 confrontation between Ford and state authorities.

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