The three women came from different states. They hadn't met in person before, but they stood together Wednesday in front of the Kosciusko County Courthouse to raise awareness of the abuse they allege they and other girls suffered when they were students at Hephzibah House, a boarding school for girls in Warsaw.
"The first day I was there, I was brutally beaten," said Jennifer Sengpiehl, of Virginia.Sengpiehl said she was a student at Hephzibah House when she was a teenager, from 1996 to 1997. She said her first day at Hephzibah House was one of the worst.
"They made me lie face down on the floor," said Sengpiehl. "A lady sat on my arms, and another lady sat on my legs, and someone else beat me with a big piece of board. They were quoting Bible verses and beating me."
Other hardships the women said they and other students experienced at Hephzibah House included verbal bullying by staff, being forbidden to talk to or look at any other students for months at a time, students being forced to eat their own vomit, and shaming punishments such as making teenage girls wear diapers.
Despite the claims of the former students, there are no open investigations regarding abuse at Hephzibah House, according to Susan Tielking, spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Child Services.
A spokesman for Kosciusko County Prosecutor Steve Hearn said his office is not investigating.
Hephzibah House officials, while refusing to comment, did provide a number of testimonial letters from former students who found their programs to be a positive experience. All the students' letters denied that physical, emotional or mental abuse took place at the school.
A couple of hours before their demonstration at the courthouse, Sengpiehl; Gabriella Fleury, of Wisconsin; and Susan Grotte, of Minnesota; sat down in the lobby of a local hotel to tell their stories.
Fleury said she was a student at Hephzibah House from August 1989 to November 1990. Grotte said she was a student at the school from February 1981 to July 1983.
The women said Hephzibah House was an environment completely controlled by the school's staff and director Pastor Ronald Williams. They said the little communication they were allowed with the outside world came in the form of censored letters to and from their families and brief telephone calls with family in which a school staff member listened in. The women said their daily activities were scheduled and structured all the way down to their bathroom activities.
"Every time we went to the bathroom, we had to record it," said Grotte, "and not just that we went to the bathroom, but whether we had a bowl movement and the amount."
"We didn't record it in a private file either," said Sengpiehl. "It was on a public board. We called it the 'BM board.'"
The women said their days at Hephzibah House were spent doing chores in and around the school campus at 2277 E. Pierceton Road, memorizing Bible verses and doing school work. They said all their activities were closely monitored by school staff.
"There were alarms on the windows and doors so we couldn't get out," Fleury said.
Fleury said she and Grotte and Sengpiehl met through several Web sites run by former Hephzibah students. She said, on the sites, students share their stories and support each other.
Grotte said she found the Web sites ironically through contact with Williams. "Williams called me and asked me to write him a letter to say I was never abused at Hephzibah House and that I hadn't seen anyone else abused there," Grotte said. "He told me some former students had started an evil Web site against Hephzibah House."
Wednesday, the women held signs with slogans like "Help Stop Abuse" and "Hephzibah: Abusing girls since 1974", and handed out fliers detailing the abuses they said they and others suffered at Hephzibah House.
"I feel like we're campaigning for awareness," said Fleury. "We know it will be hard to close it, but we want to bring awareness of what's going on in this locked-up facility. Most people who live here probably don't know that place exists."
Fleury said Wednesday's demonstration was aimed at bringing change.
"Our demonstration is in protest of the abuse that has been taking place at Hephzibah House for the past 30 years," she said. "We want to bring attention to the fact that this facility has been operating over 30 years and it has yet to be held accountable to anyone. This facility is not licensed and it has never been regulated by the state of Indiana. There needs to be a change in state law, and hopefully our demonstration can draw attention to that fact."
The women weren't standing alone Wednesday. Fleury's mother, Marie Fleury, and Kevin Smith, of Florida, whose niece was recently a student at Hephzibah House, also took part in the demonstration.
"We didn't realize the home was like that," Marie Fleury said. "We didn't do our homework."
Marie Fleury said, looking back, she and her husband can see hints that something was wrong when their daughter was at the school.
"There was an extreme lack of communication," she said. "We would ask her questions and her answers would be evasive."
Marie Fleury said, after her daughter returned from Hephzibah House, it took a while before she began to talk about her experience.
"When she got home, she was very quiet and much more 'quote' obedient," Marie Fleury said. "It really took a few years before she was able to tell us. It was devastating to us as a family to find out what had happened. That's why I'm here, because I don't want other parents to make the same mistakes."
Hephzibah House Director Ron Williams and other school staff declined to be interviewed Wednesday, but provided a press release and 15 letters from parents and former Hephzibah House students voicing support for the school.
According to the press release, Hephzibah House was founded in 1971 and is a 501(c)3 Christian boarding school affiliated with Believers Baptist Church, located on the same property as Hephzibah House and headquartered at 508 School St., Winona Lake.
In the release, Hephzibah staff wrote, "Because of the nature of our work, which includes working with minors and the resulting needs for privacy of the girls and their parents, tours of the facility, interviews with staff members or students and other normal needs of the news media cannot be honored. While all of us at Hephzibah House certainly embrace and support a free press, we hope you can understand that the nature of our work here demands such a position."
According to the release, Hephzibah House is routinely inspected for safety by fire and health department officials, students are involved in regular schooling, and parents and pastors may make regular phone calls and personal visits during their girls' stay there.
"Over the years, we have taken in troubled teenaged girls who were brought to us by anxious parents and guardians who were concerned about the spiritual direction in which their daughters were going," Hephzibah staff wrote in the release. "Through separation from bad influences and through the Word of God, we have seen many young hearts turn around and become sweet respectful young ladies as well as productive citizens."
All the letters denied that physical, emotional or mental abuse took place at the school.
One letter is signed by Mary R. Speckels, of Alaska, who claims to have been a student at the school from June 1997 to October 1998.
Speckels wrote, "After my experience at Hephzibah House as a student, I would highly recommend it to parents for their struggling teenage girls. The effect it had on my life was very dramatic and completely positive."
In a letter from Smith's niece's parents, Joseph and Karen Oberle, the Oberles wrote, "The results we have seen from Caitlin's stay at Hephzibah House are higher moral standard, respect for authority, self-confidence, self-motivation to complete her education, very high moral standards of cleanliness, appreciation for her family and an undeniable cheerful attitude."
Several of the letters expressed disapproval of the accusations being brought against the school.
"I think some of you just need to grow up and stop complaining about the past," wrote Betty Good, parent of a former Hephzibah House student, "and start being thankful you're still alive and well and not into what you were saved from."
Fleury, Grotte and Sengpiehl each said the trip to Warsaw was worthwhile.
"It's been totally a positive response," Fleury said. "If I felt that it would do more good to show up next weekend, I would."
For more information about Hephzibah House, call the school's office at 574-269-2376 or 574-269-2375.
For more information about former students' accusations against the school, visit www.formerhephzibahgirls.webs.org or www.hephzibahhouse.com or www.hephzibah-girls.blogspot.com
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