Former residents describe Cherokee shelter as "cult"

NBC News 11, Georgia/August 17, 2013

Canton, Georgia -- For a woman with no place else to go, this place looks like a dream. Bright and immaculate, folksy and homey, with a bountiful pantry and the promise of fellowship with women of faith.

It's called Bethany Place. Its backers say it has helped thousands of women, who have used the rural Cherokee County facility to transition from homelessness, addiction or abuse.

"It's to help women and children who are homeless, and to try to get them back on their feet and back into the community," saud former Cherokee County district attorney Gary Moss.

Moss and sheriff Roger Garrison are among the local leaders who have lauded the work done here. Moss says he is on the facility's board of directors.

Former resident Susan Martin says Sandy Reed, the facility's founder, turned her life around fifteen years ago.

"She did so much for me. She opened up her home and her heart, and taught me," Martin said.

But a closer look at this respected facility reveals a story with dark contrasts, as told by more recent former residents.

"It's hard to explain it but I could feel the evil," said former resident, Vanessa Kress.

"I felt like a slave every day," said Teresa Vereen, another former resident.

"They separate you from your family. You're not allowed to speak to your family," former resident said Holly Stoner said.

And threatened with damnation.

"And they were telling me something about, if I leave there, I was gonna burn in a lake of fire," said Kress.

For the five former residents willing to speak with us on camera, and for the eight other women who shared their stories off camera, Bethany Place was not a place of healing and renewal.

They describe a facility in which they say they felt trapped, typically for years, cut off from the outside world, without cash and resources, and forced to work constantly.

"Fourteen, fifteen hours a day. Every day! You're not allowed to be sick. You get yelled at if you say you're sick," said Stoner.

"There was no job training. You know, it's an eighteen month plan. Program. But there's no exit strategy. And your money was gone. I left penniless," said Anne Austin, another former resident.

Q: "Your goal was to sort of rehabilitate yourself and then move on with your life, right?"

Kress:  "Yes. That's what they say you're supposed to do."

Q: "Did they let you look for a job elsewhere?"

Kress:  "Never."

"I lost hope with that. After about four years or so, I started losing hope with that," Kress said.

"They don't let you go on the computer and check. They monitor all your phone calls. They monitor your mail," said former resident Lisa Porter.

"If you come out more messed up than you went in, there's a problem,"  Austin added.

We visited Bethany Place twice.  Founder Sandy Reed showed us the facility, but would not allow TV interviews with current residents.

"And things like, you're gonna burn in a lake of fire? I never said that in my life," Reed said.

Q: "So she just made that up?"

Reed:  "You bet she made that up."

When Reed talked with us, we showed her what some of her former residents had told us, and gave her a chance to respond to their claims.

"She would teach often, the girls, about being a servant. That if you're a servant, that if you love the lord, you will do those things - for her. Mainly for her. Not for other people, but for her," Porter said.  "That's not God at all. That's a cult."

"None of that is true. Not any of it is true," Reed said.

Q: "So all of them are lying?"

Reed: "Right."

Q: "Do you use the fear of God to shape these folks?"

Reed:  "Never. Never. Listen. He lives inside of me."

Reed says the ministry is a vital component of the shelter's mission.  Former residents say it was an overbearing component.

"(Reed) told us as well that if we walked out of the doors, that we were not guaranteed God's protection. We were only guaranteed God's protection while we were in the ministry," Stoner said.

Q: "I wonder how she knew that?"

Stoner:  "He talks to her. And only her."

Q: "Now, did she actually say that?"

Stoner:  "Yes, many times. Many times. 'You can't hear God. I hear God'."

We asked Reed about that.

Q: "Did you ever say 'Only you hear God'?"

Reed:  "Oh my gosh! No! They have perverted that."

Q: "What do you say?"

A: "I say, while you're here, we have authority. And God will speak to us on your behalf."

Reed showed us the facility's computer lab, which had been converted into a temporary bedroom.  Reed admitted she doesn't let residents use it to find work, or for any other reason.

"Do you know why we haven't used the computer lab? Because we had a couple of women here who were addicted to pornography on computers," Reed said.

Q: "If a woman comes in here, how can she plan her life afterward?"

A: "That's not my responsibility to do it. You're a grown woman. You do it."

Reed agreed that residents are required to work and says the conditions can be tough, by necessity.

"These women need their lives changed. Or they're going back to the same thing they always did," Reed said.  "It's hard. When I interview them, every single one will tell you, back there, this will be the hardest thing you've ever done in your life."

Since 2010, Cherokee County sheriff deputies have been called six times to help residents leave Bethany Place, because of "emotional abuse," one incident report says; "not able to leave the facility of her own free will," as another said.

In late 2012, some former residents tipped us off to an attempt they'd planned to get a woman out of the shelter. She had been there six years. And after deputies interviewed her, she declined to leave.

But several weeks earlier, deputies escorted Vanessa Kress from Bethany place. She had been there eight years.

"They build you up, break you down," Kress said.  "Like a cult. I figured that out at the end. That's exactly what it was."

In two instances, the sheriff's department opened criminal investigations into whether women were being held against their will at Bethany Place. Both times, they found insufficient evidence to file any charges, and closed their investigations.

"I'm accused of being arrogant and over the top. This is the way God raised me," Reed said.

Reed dismisses the emergency calls to police as "drama."

"They were well taken care of. Abundantly taken care of. And this stuff that you hear, they're lying," Reed said.

Q: "Do you think they're going to hell?"

Reed:  "I don't know where they're going. I don't know their hearts. I don't know if you are. I'll tell you what, what they're doing now isn't helping them."

Bethany Place is a privately run non-profit.  Reed says it gets no government funding.  Reed, Moss and former residents say residents are referred there frequently by the state Department of Family and Childrens Services.  However, DFCS officials said they had no records of any links between the agency and Bethany Place.

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