'I'm awake' - Mother wins fight to keep children in South Carolina after leaving religious group

ABC TV-4 News, South Carolina/September 18, 2015

By Andy Paras

Baird, Texas – With wet eyes and a broad smile, Amy Hawkins walked out of a Texas courtroom Wednesday and embraced her 15-year-old son waiting for her in the hallway.

“You are free,” she said. “We’re free. You’re going to have an education. You’re going to have a life.”

After hours of testimony, a judge granted Hawkins temporary custody of her four children, allowing them to return to South Carolina where they have been living since she left her husband and a Texas religious group on Aug. 1.

Hawkins testified that as members of the House of Yahweh in nearby Clyde, her son was forced to work long hours in the group’s slaughterhouse while she lived in isolation with her three daughters who were denied a formal education and medical care.

She said on the stand that all of their family’s decisions were made by her husband after consulting with the group’s elders.

“He couldn’t make a decision on his own or have a conversation with his own wife,” she testified.

Micahyah Hawkins, who filed for divorce and sought custody of the kids after she left, said that it was his wife who kept his children from going to school and to a doctor. He said his son worked at the slaughterhouse to learn a trade.

“He loves it there,” Micahyah Hawkins said.  

He also responded to his wife’s claims that their daughters, ages 14, 10 and 4, would be forced to marry older men within the group.

“I tell my daughters that they’re not getting married until they’re 40,” he said on the stand.

The House of Yahweh is a religious, gated community on the outskirts of Clyde filled with mobile homes where many of its members live. The group and some of its members have faced legal issues in the past dealing with underage children.

In 2009 its leader, Yisrayl Bill Hawkins, was sentenced to probation and six months community service after he pleaded no contest to four counts of child labor violations after he allegedly forced children under 14 years old to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the group’s fields, cafeteria, canning operation and butter making process, according to court records.

As part of a plea bargain, prosecutors agreed to drop bigamy charges against Yisrayl Hawkins, according to the agreement filed in Callahan County Court.

Also in 2009, elder Yedidiyah Hawkins was sentenced to 30 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of aggravated sexual assault for using a vaginal speculum on an 11-year-old girl, according to court records.

A third member, Rebekah Hawkins was found guilty of injury to a child in 2007 after prosecutors said she assisted in a surgery on a 7-year-old girl who later died, according to court documents.

ABC News 4 drove out to the House of Yahweh’s fenced-in compound on Tuesday and spoke to an elder who said the allegations and custody battle had nothing to do with their group.

“This court case really has nothing to do with the House of Yahweh,” the man said. “This is a disagreement between this man and this woman and both of them are in disagreement with the House of Yahweh. It really has nothing to do with us.”

A day later the same man sat behind Micahyah Hawkins in court but did not comment.

Now Amy Hawkins and the children will return to a little town in South Carolina where they fled with the help of an unlikely source: her mother-in-law.    

I’m awake

Hawkins said she waited until her husband left for work this July when she downloaded the Facebook app to her phone – one of many acts she says were forbidden in their home – and looked up a person she hadn’t spoken to in years.

Hawkins created a profile and typed a message she knew her mother-in-law would understand.

“It’s Amy! I’m awake.”

Claudia Owen happened to be on Facebook at her home 1,200 miles away in Little Mountain, S.C. when the message from her daughter-in law popped up. Owen breaks into tears thinking about the conversation that followed.

“It said she was leaving,” Owen said. “She said she had the four children. I didn’t know how many children she had – now I had four grandchildren.”

Owen said the first thing Amy Hawkins asked to do when she arrived in South Carolina was to enroll the children in school, which they did.

Ten-year-old Rachabyah, the extrovert of the family with streaks of color in her hair and a quick smile, returned from school that first day and told her family her mouth hurt from smiling the entire day.

When asked if she was glad they left Texas, 14-year-old Shalana nodded fervently.

Owen, who saw her son for the first time in 13 years in court on Wednesday, said she is helping her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren because her son, Micahyah, is not the same person she once knew.

“He’s not the same man which is very sad,” she said. “Because he’s just not there.”    

Living at the House of Yahweh

Amy Hawkins said she was 22 years old with a sixth grade education when she started dating Michael, a boy she grew up with in Massachusetts

With a trace of a Boston accent, the now-39-year-old mother sat on her mother-in-law’s couch last month and told the story about how they moved to a two-bedroom trailer on the 50-acre House of Yahweh compound in West Texas in 2001, when their oldest son was just a baby.

The elders of the house named their son Shemuyl, Michael took on the name Micahyah and they all took on the last name Hawkins, a requirement of all House of Yahweh members, Amy Hawkins said.

“We went to the House of Yahweh. We went to serve our heavenly father. My husband had said this is the place. This is where the truth is. It's not like any other religion,” Hawkins said. “It was great at first. Everything was brand new. It's a new place. You believe it's the place.”

But Hawkins said the rules became stricter and that new rules were coming down all the time. She said she and the children were routinely oppressed and repressed.

She said her husband wouldn’t let the children go to school.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t teach them anymore,” she said on the stand Wednesday. “I only have a sixth-grade education myself.”

An attorney for Micahyah Hawkins told ABC News 4 before the hearing that it was he, not his wife, who wanted the children to have a formal education.

"My client has been trying to get them into school for some time now," Attorney Kristin Postell said, noting that her client is a programmer for an insurance company. "His wife would not let them. He thinks education got him where he is today and he would like them to have a formal education."

Postell said Amy Hawkins is exaggerating how much time the couple's son worked and other details in hopes of raising money to pay for a divorce. She equated the son's work at the slaughterhouse to an internship.

“He’s supposed to learn the business because his mom, who is supposed to be homeschooling him, hasn’t taught him anything,” Postell said.

Amy Hawkins said the only time they were able to socialize with anyone else was during their annual feast, a time when everyone was expected to wear colorful, expensive clothes purchased at the compound.

Hawkins said that was hardly a treat because they didn’t know many of the other people.

“And every year it's the same thing,” Hawkins said. “They say it's going to be nuclear war every year. And every year you're petrified going, ‘OK, we're all going to die.’ My children have lived in fear for the last 15 years. They've been petrified thinking they're going to die every single feast.”

James Walker, president of the Watchman Fellowship, a Christian group that monitors thousands of sects and cults, said they consider the group to be unhealthy because it claims that it is the only group that can offer salvation.

“I would say the House of Yahweh from my perspective is certainly a spiritually dangerous organization,” he said.

On one of its websites, the House of Yahweh says it is a peaceful group constantly targeted by naysayers.

“Just as the Disciples were persecuted and slandered in their day, by very powerful men, The Saints of Yahweh today receive the same persecution.”    

A new life

Once she decided to leave, Hawkins said she borrowed $600 from a friend who had left the House of Yahweh a long time ago.

They packed the van up, picked up Shemuyl from the slaughterhouse and headed to South Carolina.

“I felt free and I felt hope for them that they would be free this time,” Hawkins said.

The trip took 18 hours because the van broke down on the way, Amy Hawkins said. Owen paid for a new starter over the phone.

On the road they said they listened to the one CD they owned, over and over, and one song in particular, “Awake and Alive” by Skillet.

The girls still sing the chorus, “I’m awake, I’m alive. Now I know what I believe inside. Now it’s my time. I’ll do what I want ‘cause this is my life.”

When they were close, Owen stood on the front porch of her home and waited to see her grandchildren for the first time.

“They're beautiful,” Owen said. “They look just like Amy. They have dimples. They smile all the time.”

Since their arrival, Owen has taken them to a carnival, boating on a nearby lake and to the zoo. She marvels at watching her grandchildren experience things for the first time.

And then there was the first day of school for the two older girls.

“They come home with smiles on their face every day and that's something to see,” Amy Hawkins said. “They made friends and they talk and they say, ‘I made friends today’ and I say, ‘That's so wonderful’ and I just want them to have a life, I want them to have friends, I want them to be able to play. My son is 15 and he's never played a sport in his life.”

The girls were so happy during their first week of school their brother Shemuyl, who has since decided he wants to change his name to Jimmy, told his mom he wanted to go as well, Owen said.

But beneath the smiles, Owen and Amy Hawkins said the children still have fear and emotional problems. Hawkins said she’s still fearful.

“The first week I left I was afraid I was going to get struck by lightning just because,” Hawkins said. “And when I ate at a restaurant for the first time in 15 years I thought I was going to die.”

Rachabyah, the extrovert, has night terrors, her mother said.

Four-year-old Aliciyah visibly shakes when she meets a man she doesn’t know.

“My daughter is not able to socialize,” Hawkins said. “She's not able to deal with the world. She's not able to deal with people. She's not able to talk properly.”

Owen said she calls family meetings every day to give the children a chance to speak about their emotions.

Hawkins said she and the children plan to seek counseling. But Owen said one thing is clear: They don’t want to return to Texas.

“I ask them if they want to go back and they do not want to go back because they’ve seen what it’s like to have a life to live,” Owen said. “They’re getting a peek at normal.”

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