Families turn to courts to retrieve loved ones

Abilene Reporter-News
By Richard Horn

Gerald Shaw barely knew his 8-year-old daughter when he saw her three months ago. Her hair was cropped and her clothes were shabbier. Worst of all, he said, her name had become Hawkins.

"I started crying when I learned that," the Boston accountant said, "and then I wanted to put my fist through the wall.

"They've taken my little girl's identity. She treated me like one of the unclean, an enemy. God knows how she'll treat me next time."

So Shaw is going to court. He's one of a growing number of people across America who are turning to the judicial system in hopes of extracting their loved ones from the House of Yahweh, the Abilene-based sect whose membership is growing at a fast and, to some observers, alarming rate.

His wife left him a year ago after she became involved with the sect through a friend who had visited one of the three annual feasts, Shaw said. She's sold many of her possessions and hopes to move to Abilene to be near the compound.

She changed her and her daughter's last names to Hawkins, the last name of the sect's "pastor and overseer," Yisryal Hawkins. More than 250 have done the same in Taylor County alone.

Shaw agreed to give his wife custody of their daughter, he said, but that was before he realized what the House of Yahweh was really like. Now he wants to reverse that decision. But he knows that won't be easy. Like many others, he's learning courts are reluctant to get involved.

"I can't prove they're physically abusing her, but what about the emotional effects?" he said, fighting to hold back tears. "What about her childhood? I don't mind so much that she no longer has my name. I understand that. But why, why, why must she have the name of a cult leader? She's only 8. You know she didn't make that decision herself."

His attorney has told him he has two strikes against him: Courts tend to favor the mother in custody issues unless there's evidence of abuse, and judges are unwilling to challenge a religious preference just because it is unusual.

Many other people who've contacted the Reporter-News in the past year have expressed similar frustrations. Though numerous custody cases are known to have been filed, there's no record of any of them ending with a child being removed from a Yahweh member's custody.

But many are determined to keep trying, especially in the wake of the Heaven's Gate suicides.

Although there's no evidence the House of Yahweh holds any similar beliefs to those of the San Diego cult, Shaw and others say the name changes are plenty of cause to worry.

"If he can make them change their names, what else can he make them do?" Shaw said.

Tina, a Michigan woman, is trying everything she can think of to win custody of her 7-year-old sister. She asked that her real name not be used.

Her mother, a physician, tried to talk a colleague out of joining the House of Yahweh but ended up joining the sect herself, Tina said. She's now attending the upcoming feast in Callahan County, is selling her positions and plans to move to Abilene.

"She went down there and made him (Hawkins) the head of her household, and she became a totally different person," Tina said.

Her sister has been forced to go along with it all, she said, and complains that people are mean to her, preach to her about "death and destruction" and make her drink wine.

"That was like the last straw for me," Tina said. "She just doesn't want to be around them."

Philip Arnn of the cult-watch group Watchman Fellowship in Arlington has researched Hawkins and the House of Yahweh and is helping the several dozens of family members mount cases to protect children from the group.

"This man (Hawkins) has manipulated lives from Washington State to New York State," Arnn said last week. "People put their houses up for sale and plan to move to Abilene, and they're taking their children with them."

But he agrees family members face an uphill struggle. To help, he's putting together a database of psychological testimony about the emotional effects children face in such cults.

Robert Dearden of Chapel Hill, N.C., came to Abilene last fall to try to talk his wife out of forcing their 9-year-old son to participate in the sect's activities. He met with no success, he said, and was treated like an "alien invader."

"If you're not a believer," he said, "you're the enemy. But my son is not a believer, and they want him anyway. They want people who can't fight back."

People who've suffered marital problems are especially susceptible to becoming involved in such groups, he said.

"It broke my heart that my wife and I split up and put him through that," he said. "And it's breaking again because he's become caught up in this. Some day I'm going to answer the phone and find out I've lost him forever, and I'll never forgive myself."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.