Runaway's Parents Find Selves In Legal Nightmare

Waterford Couple Contends Daughter, 16, Under Spell Of Religious Cult In Colchester

New London Day/April 25, 2006

By Eileen Mcnamara

Waterford –– Judy and Gary Meucci discovered their 16-year-old daughter, Heather, was missing in the early morning hours of March 18. When a noise roused the couple around 4 a.m., they found the lights and telephones in their Bloomingdale Road home had been disabled, along with the security system.

Fearing the worst, they ran to check on Heather and her little sister. The couple's 13-year-old daughter was sleeping, but when Judy Meucci found Heather's bedroom empty she initially panicked, thinking the girl had been abducted.

Confusion replaced fear when she saw the letter Heather had written lying on Heather's neatly made bed. It was a heart-wrenchingly terse note.

“She said she didn't want to live at home anymore and that she was going to live with the Bansemers,” Judy Meucci said. “That's how the nightmare started.”

Heather, aided by members of the Bansemer family, ran away under cover of darkness to live with Coleen and James Bansemer on a small family compound the Bansemers maintain in a suburban area of Colchester. Before the Meuccis moved to Waterford about six months ago, they and the Bansemers had been neighbors in Colchester.

Fundamentalist Christians, the Bansemers last year introduced Heather, who was raised a Catholic, to religious services in their home-based church. Heather began attending the services regularly.

The Bansemers are now helping Heather fight her parents' efforts to bring her home.

The Bansemers have accused the Meuccis of verbally abusing Heather and have hired a lawyer to represent the girl. With their assistance, Heather has filed court papers to legally emancipate from her parents, a move that would sever all legal ties between the Meuccis and their daughter. She is living in one of two multifamily homes the Bansemers own on adjoining properties in a residential neighborhood.

The Meuccis say they have been frustrated by Connecticut's legal system, under which Heather is in what police and lawmakers call the “gray area” of the law, where 16- and 17-year-olds are not quite adults but are old enough that their parents can not make them live at home.

The Meuccis are still legally responsible for certain aspects of Heather's well-being, such as providing her with health insurance coverage and deciding where she goes to high school, but the Bansemers are doing nothing illegal in helping Heather stay away from home.

“It's like my daughter has been legally kidnapped,” Gary Meucci said.

Papers filed in Waterford's juvenile court show the Meuccis suspect that Heather or one of the Bansemers disconnected the electricity and telephones in the Meucci's home the day Heather ran away.

The Bansemers, contacted at their Hi Lea Farm Road home last week, declined to comment.

“We're not going to talk about this. She's a minor,” James Bansemer said of Heather.

Their lawyer, Peter Catania, did not return telephone messages requesting comment.

In court documents, the Meuccis have accused the Bansemers of operating a religious cult and of brainwashing their daughter. They say they fear for Heather's health and well-being. Heather last month, under a court-ordered emergency evaluation, was diagnosed with symptoms of dissociative disorder, a mental illness characterized by marked or dramatic changes in a person's personality and behavior.

“Although she never had a history of mental illness, we believe that our daughter is gravely disabled and is at risk of becoming a member of a cult that advocates values and beliefs harmful to the morals of our child,” the Meuccis said in one of their court filings. “We fear for her safety and well-being if she remains without appropriate psychiatric care.”

And, they say in the court documents, they believe the Bansemers, in keeping with their religious beliefs, are grooming Heather to marry before she turns 18. Her prospective bridegroom, they believe, is Jesse Bansemer, 23, who lives in one of the two houses his parents own and have remodeled for multifamily use. The couple's two daughters, the Meuccis say, were married at age 18 to men several years older. Both young couples, they say, now live and work at home with the Bansemers.

In a letter to the Meuccis written two days after Heather left home, Coleen Bansemer blames Judy Meucci for driving Heather away. She also berates Judy Meucci for refusing her daughter's requests to take part in religious services at the Bansemers' home.

“Heather asked you several times to join us. You flat out refused, but you nevertheless decided to form a negative opinion of us and tried to convince Heather of the same,” Coleen Bansemer wrote. “But she saw things for what they were and tried to get you to do the same. And now you're in the situation you're in because of your irresponsible actions.”

She also states in the letter that she would like to see Heather reunited with her family “and possibly even being able to return home.”

“God knows my heart is broken over this situation with you people and Heather,” she wrote.

In their desperation to get their daughter back, the Meuccis are making public their legal battle, which is being waged in the confidentiality of juvenile court. The couple have also sought the help of state lawmakers.

State Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, said there is little she can do because the law right now dictates that Heather can decide where she wants to live.

That could change next year, said Rep. Gail Hamm, D-East Hampton. Hamm has become a leading advocate of changing Connecticut juvenile laws to extend their full protection to 16- and 17-year olds.

Part of her motivation rises from the death several years ago of 16-year-old Makayla Korpinen. The East Hampton teen left home against her mother's wishes to live with her boyfriend and his parents. She later died in her boyfriend's home of an Ecstasy overdose.

Hamm and other lawmakers who support extending the protection of Connecticut's juvenile laws to all youths under age 18 hope to submit the legislation during the next General Assembly session, which starts in January.

“It would allow the courts to treat them as children, and the police would be able to return them home,” Hamm said.

That's little comfort right now to Judy and Gary Meucci, who say their outgoing and personable teenager has become a wan and hollow-eyed girl since leaving home last month. They have seen her several times: in court, at a school counseling session and at Natchaug Hospital in Mansfield, where Heather underwent her court-ordered emergency evaluation. In court documents, they describe Heather as looking “like a zombie.”

Following her treatment at Natchaug, Heather agreed to return to her parents' home to await outpatient services, the Meuccis said. During those brief days at home she appeared to get better. But at some point, Judy Meucci said, the Bansemers resumed contact with her, and around midnight on April 6, Heather announced she was leaving again.

After bidding her parents and little sister goodbye, she walked to the end of the family's long, hilly driveway. Her parents accompanied her. Waiting there for Heather were several members of the Bansemer family. What followed was a brief but acrimonious standoff between Heather's parents and the Bansemer family. Two young men associated with the Bansemers were arrested on trespassing and other misdemeanor charges.

Heather returned to Colchester with the Bansemers. The following day, she filled out documents seeking emancipation from her parents. Judy Meucci believes she was able to do that so quickly because the Bansemers had been arranging her return and planning her next legal move.

“They've done a lot of legal research on this,” she said.

Not long ago, Judy Meucci said, she and Heather were close and her daughter was an open, happy teenager. She said she tries to call her daughter frequently, though Heather doesn't always take her calls. When she does, Judy Meucci said, Heather often becomes angry with her for questioning her decision or the Bansemers' motives.

“How dare these people push their religious beliefs on my daughter?” Judy Meucci said. “I can't tell you how heartbroken we are over this, how worried we are about our daughter. They have torn us apart completely. My whole family.”

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