Parents upset over abuse allegations -- Some girls deny abuse at academy
By By Antoinette Konz, American Staff Writer;
Hattiesburg American , May 21, 2004

Several parents of the 38 teenagers removed Wed-nesday from the Bethel Academy for Girls in Petal said Thursday they are furious over allegations of abuse at the group home and are demanding answers from state officials.

One father said Thurs-day his daughter told him some of the allegations were true, although they didn't happen to her.

But some of the teen-agers interviewed by the Hattiesburg American denied there was abuse.

Another parent said he was told the facility was not registered with the state.

Jeff Lashuay of Chicago said his daughter, Brittany, 14, was one of the girls removed from the home.

"The state told me Wednesday night that they were investigating the academy on charges of abuse and neglect and that Mr. Fountain had made them roll around in raw sewage," Lashuay said.

"I didn't believe it, that is, until I spoke with Brittany later on."

Herman Fountain Jr. is the director of the group home for at-risk teens.

Because he couldn't make the 1,000-mile drive to Mississippi until next week, Lashuay had his brother, who lives in Florida, pick up his daughter Thursday.

"When they got back to Florida, I spoke to my daughter and she told me that the allegations were true, that none of them had happened to her, but that there was some abuse going on at the academy," he said. "She said she didn't tell me because she didn't think I would believe her."

Lashuay's oldest daughter, Stephanie, had successfully gone through Bethel for 11 months and never mentioned any abuse. In fact, Lashuay said, Stephanie wanted to go back this summer to visit friends.

"I feel horrible, I feel like I let my daughter down," he said. "But I can't understand what went wrong. Bethel did such a great job last year with my oldest daughter. Something had to have gone terribly wrong and I want to know what it was."

Other parents said Thursday they were angry at the handling of the girls' removal.

"Child Services called me at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday night and told me that my daughter had been removed from Bethel and taken to another location, but would not tell me where that location was," said David Bakker of Chicago, father of 12-year-old Jessica.

"This is my daughter. They have not told me where she is or why she was taken away from Bethel and I am furious. These people have stirred up a hornet's nest."

Immediately after receiving the phone call from the Mississippi Department of Human Services, Bakker packed his van and made the drive from northern Illinois to find out what happened.

He arrived at the Bethel Home, located on Victory Ranch Road near Petal, shortly before 10 a.m. Thursday and was told by DHS officials that he could not see nor talk to his daughter until 3 p.m.

Carolyn Stewart's 16-year-old daughter, Jennifer, was also removed from the home.

Stewart of New Port Richey, Fla., flew to New Orleans early Thursday to find out where her daughter was.

When she contacted state officials, she was also told she couldn't see her daughter until after 3 p.m.

Around 3:30 p.m., Bakker and Stewart were reunited with their daughters and both received a court order signed by Forrest County Youth Court Judge Michael McPhail, instructing them to not place their daughters back at Bethel or any other unregistered place in Mississippi.

"I spent almost an hour in there with those people and I still have no answers," Bakker said. "All they keep saying is that there were allegations of abuse and that the academy did not have a license to operate.

"I was told my daughter was a victim of abuse, but my daughter denies that and they have no documentation they can show me that would prove there was any abuse," he said.

Fountain said Thursday that officials with DHS arrived at the academy shortly before lunch Wednesday.

"They told us they were investigating some allegations of abuse," Fountain said. "They came in, put all the girls together and told us we could not have any contact with them."

Fountain could not be reached later Thursday to ask if the academy had a license to operate.

Department of Human Services spokesman Rick Whitlow said Thursday the agency would have no comment on the removal of the girls.

"It's a judicial matter, so you will need to contact the youth court of Forrest County," he said.

Calls made to Forrest County Youth Court and McPhail were not returned. Under Mississippi law, all youth court proceedings are confidential.

Jessica Bakker, who had been at the academy for almost a month, said the girls were taken to a barrack at Camp Shelby.

"They kept trying to get information out of us. There was nothing bad going on at Bethel, the people were nice and I felt like I fit in," she said.

Stewart's daughter, Jennifer, described the military barracks at Camp Shelby as "gross" and said she couldn't shower because there was not a shower curtain.

"When we were at Bethel, they gave us like 10 minutes to collect everything we had and pack into a bus. Some girls had to drive in a police car because the bus was too full," Jennifer Stewart said. "When we got to Camp Shelby, the bunks had cigarette butts in them and they smelled. It was a pretty rough night."

The Bethel Academy for Girls is operated by Bethel Baptist Church in Lucedale. The Bethel Academy for Boys, also located in Lucedale, has not been affected by the court order, said the academy's director, John Fountain.

Pamela Ward of Indianapolis said Thursday that she was not sure how she was going to get her 16-year-old daughter, Cassandra, back to Indiana.

"I'm on disability and there is no way that I can get down to Mississippi to pick her up and I don't want her going into the custody of DHS," Ward said in a telephone interview. "She is a troubled girl and that is why she was at Bethel. She needs some help."

Originally published Friday, May 21, 2004

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