Judge bars future raids of Christian reform school

Associated Press/May 13, 2004
By Jim Suhr

St. Louis -- A federal judge has permanently barred juvenile authorities from again removing all students from a discipline-minded, remote Christian reform school without a proper hearing.

U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber issued the permanent injunction Tuesday in a 163-page opinion favoring northeast Missouri's nondenominational Heartland Christian Academy.

Webber's temporary injunction, granted at Heartland's request in February 2002, came after law enforcers and juvenile officials in an October 2001 raid took 115 children from the rural complex by buses.

The latest court order bars Heartland children from being taken into protective custody without a hearing unless the child "is in imminent danger of suffering serious physical harm, threat to life from abuse or neglect, or has been sexually abused" or imminently faces such abuse.

The state still may investigate individual reports of abuse.

Scott Holste, a spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, noted Wednesday the injunction apparently applied only to juvenile officer Michael Waddle. Holste said Nixon's office was reviewing Webber's ruling and would not comment further.

In a statement, Waddle said that though his office still needed time to scrutinize Tuesday's voluminous opinion, it was disappointed by the findings, which Waddle called inconsistent with evidence.

"Further review of the order is to determine grounds for appeal," he said.

At the time of the raid, juvenile officers cited concern for the children's safety after a series of child abuse allegations against Heartland, which openly relies on corporal punishment. The children later were allowed to return.

In successfully pressing for the injunctions, Heartland called the removals unconstitutional seizures that violated its right to due process.

Webber again concurred Tuesday, questioning what he called the "crudely executed loading of the children like criminals on buses, in a fashion reminiscent of horror of earlier world events."

But Waddle has countered that, among other things, Webber improperly exercised jurisdiction in the matter, potentially interfering with Waddle's enforcement of Missouri child-protection laws.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last summer upheld Webber's initial injunction, ruling that Webber wisely weighed the possible harm to Heartland if it was unprotected "from the trauma of another mass roundup" of children - and the potential negatives on Waddle if the injunction were issued.

In his initial ruling, Webber expressed disgust with the videotaped raid, describing the scene of students forcibly loaded on buses as "surreal, as if captured in some totalitarian state."

The 8th Circuit later found that the injunction "successfully protects Heartland from the harms alleged without impeding Waddle's ability to do his job."

While noting Waddle's "significant public interest in protecting Missouri's children," the appellate court ruled that Webber "recognized the good work Heartland was doing with children who might otherwise 'fall through the cracks.' We cannot say that (Webber) erred in its consideration of the public-interest factor."

Webber found that another mass removal of Heartland boarding students was "a real possibility absent an injunction," resulting "in additional trauma to already troubled children, a loss of trust, and a break in the continuity of care that is so important to the Heartland children," the 8th Circuit said.

Heartland founder Charles Sharpe has strongly denied abusing any children at his remote, 20,000-acre religious complex near Bethel, about 150 miles north of St. Louis. No Heartland officials have been convicted of wrongdoing.

In recent years, Sharpe - a millionaire insurance executive - has spent more than $2 million defending Heartland against a laundry list of charges, largely over the strong forms of discipline used there. That discipline has included paddlings and, in one instance, forcing misbehaving youngsters to stand in piles of manure.

Sharpe has said such treatment was appropriate, given his unwavering belief that America's youths are falling prey to drugs, sex and violence because public institutions are godless and parents have spared the rod of corporal punishment.

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