Mrs. Peterson, 36, has lost custody of her children -- Sadie, 15, Cassie, 11, and William, 6 -- for actions that a district judge deemed to be religiously inspired "abuse." She attends a church that has been accused of brainwashing its members.
She is trying not to worry.
"When you live for God, things don't always go the way you want," she said. "So Sadie and I both have to believe this is what God wants."
At the end of January, York County District Judge Bryce Bartu transferred Mrs. Peterson's children to the custody of her former husband and ordered her not to speak to the children about her religion. Testimony in the Peterson case and another child-custody case last summer centered on allegations that the Good Life Pentecostal Church in York, Neb., encourages excessive physical punishment of children and that church members have been subjected to coercion and programming.
Sadie, Mrs. Peterson's oldest daughter, made it clear that she wanted to stay with her mother and continue to attend the church and its tiny school.
She is described as a quiet girl who always has been close to her mother.
"It bothers her a lot that she can't go to (the Good Life) church," Mrs. Peterson said. "Also, we do have a standard to live above sin, and it's hard to find that in the world today."
Mrs. Peterson said she has told Sadie to go to public school and "be the very best Christian witness you know how to be."
Sadie was a child of an earlier marriage but was adopted by Robert Peterson when she was a toddler. Now the girl is "having to stand up against" her adoptive father on some matters of belief, Mrs. Peterson said.
In conversation, Mrs. Peterson comes across as likable, thoughtful and sincerely religious. In a long interview, she said she had searched for something to believe in and had found the truth in the Good Life church.
'Lose Their Souls'
She said she gave up drinking and smoking marijuana. She became "convicted" about her responsibility to make sure her children didn't "lose their souls." She left her husband when he wouldn't follow suit. She learned to submit herself to authority.
She said she genuinely believes she is doing God's will and is "honored to serve him." Her whipping of Cassie might have cost her the custody of her children, but she does not think she punished her daughter too harshly.
Mrs. Peterson admitted that she struck Cassie 43 times with a belt after the girl was suspended from school for picking up crayons during prayer. Mrs. Peterson said the crayon incident was one of a string of incidents in which Cassie displayed a bad attitude.
Mrs. Peterson works part time caring for a disabled man, Winsor Tucker, who said she is a good worker. Religion is a very important part of her life, Tucker said, but she doesn't seem brainwashed to him.
Down a gravel road a few miles outside York live Mrs. Peterson's parents, Clay and Irene Brumbaugh, both 71. Mrs. Brumbaugh testified on behalf of her former son-in-law in the custody case. The farm couple have been trying to get their daughter out of the Good Life church for a year.
"I've been doing nothing but studying cults for a whole year," Irene Brumbaugh said, motioning to stacks of books and papers on her coffee table. She is a slender woman with white hair, glasses and a face etched by age and concern.
Her husband, dressed in faded coveralls, settled his long-legged frame on a straight-backed chair. He has an extra concern today, he said, because the cows are calving.
Study of Cults
Mrs. Brumbaugh said she started her study of cults in the fall of 1988, when Mrs. Peterson, the youngest of the Brumbaughs' four daughters, pulled her children out of public schools to put them in the York Christian Academy, a small, uncertified school attached to the Good life Church.
Of the five people running the academy, only one has finished high school, Mrs. Brumbaugh said, backing up her statement with photocopied state records.
Mrs. Brumbaugh said she first encouraged her daughter's interest in the church because Carol had never had a church affiliation. But by the fall of 1988, the scene had changed.
"We had been having trouble with Carol all summer," Mrs. Brumbaugh said. "She told us, 'You don't know how I feel. Everybody in this family is going to hell except for me.' "
Then grandson Willie became afraid to visit his grandparents and his father, Mrs. Brumbaugh said. "Several times he told me, 'The devil lives here. And he lives at dad's house. He lives in dad's heart.' "
Lawyer Brian C. Bennett of Milford, Neb., was appointed to represent the interests of the children in the custody dispute. In his report to the court, he wrote that Mrs. Peterson "was not willing to try to dispel (Willie's) notion that the devil exists at both Bob's house and her parents' house."
His report also said Sadie had adamantly refused to attend a Methodist church with her father and grandparents because of her belief that the Catholic Church is "the great whore" of the biblical Book of Revelation and that all Protestant churches are "daughters of the great whore."
The Good Life Church, Sadie told Bennett, is neither Catholic nor Protestant.
Bennett wrote that he was concerned about Sadie's "great whore" belief, which he said also was expressed by Mrs. Peterson.
"This type of attitude and teaching tends to instill in people, particularly children, an extreme prejudice against other members of our society," he wrote.
Peterson, a self-employed upholsterer, has found himself suddenly the single father of three. Cassie has been living with him for a year, since shortly after her suspension from the church school. Willie, an easy-going youngster, is handling the change well, his relatives said.
But things are tense with Sadie.
"I need to get some rapport going with my oldest daughter and get some trust going between us." Peterson said. "She and her mother were very close, and she's having a hard time adjusting. She was very convinced there was nothing wrong there to begin with.
"Right now I've got to work with my children. We've got a lot of emotional problems to get past."