State health officials are investigating two church-based children's homes and taking steps to close them or force them to become licensed, the state attorney general's office said Wednesday.
Bethel Baptist Church in Lucedale operates the homes, founded by the Rev. Herman Fountain, who previously operated Bethel Children's Home. In June 1988, state welfare officials raided Bethel Children's Home and took custody of 72 children found to have been abused and neglected. A judge closed the home in January 1990.
The home reopened in 1994 as a boy's academy in Lucedale. That home and one for girls in Forrest County are now being investigated based on an incident concerning a child at one of the facilities, state Assistant Attorney General Ellen O'Neal said Wednesday. It is unclear when the girls' home opened.
O'Neal would not say at which facility the incident occurred. The nature of the incident also is unclear. Law enforcment oficials and social workers from the state Department of Human Services have interviewed children at both facilities.
"We're cooperating with law enforcement and the Department of Health in their investigation," DHS spokeswoman Pamela Confer said.
O'Neal said the state Department of Health wants the homes to close or fall under DHS licensing regulations because they have not complied with the state Child Residential Home Notification Act. That act was passed in response to the problems at Bethel Children's Home in 1988.
The state attorney general's office can ask a Youth or Chancery Court judge to close a home or remove children if it fails to comply with the act or state health or fire marshal inspections, or if there is suspected abuse or neglect.
Church and religious organizations are normally exempt from DHS licensing requirements.
Lucedale lawyer Robert Shephard said Bethel Boys Academy has complied with the act and denies any abuse or neglect.
Shephard said the academy tries to turn around the lives of troubled children.
"These are not the cream of the crop, they are the bottom of the barrel in most cases," Shephard said. "Somebody has got to take them or else they get turned loose on society."
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