Were you or a loved one abused at Hephzibah House, a small, private Christian boarding school for teenage girls located in Winona Lake, Indiana? Our deepest condolences go out to you. Sexual abuse can leave scars that last a lifetime. We understand.
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In a spate of recent allegations, former Hephzibah House students describe vicious beatings, forced eating and sexual misconduct. The allegations, which first broke in a 2011 news report for CNN, are shocking. Former students claim that Hephzibah House operates much like a prison, with cramped quarters and invasive “medical examinations” that, if the reports are true, cross the border into outright sexual assault.
In light of these troubling revelations, our experienced legal team has opened a full investigation into Hephzibah House and the school’s disturbing record of abuse reports. If you or a loved one were abused, learn more about your legal options in a free consultation today. Some abuse survivors may be eligible to pursue financial compensation by filing a private school sexual abuse lawsuit. You can find more information on your rights at no charge and no obligation.
Hephzibah House is a small private boarding school in Winona Lake, Indiana, a small town about an hour west from Fort Wayne. Founded in 1971, the school operates under the authority of Believers Baptist Church, one of the hundreds of small churches that ascribe to the religious teachings of the independent fundamental Baptist movement.
Independent fundamental Baptist, or IFB, churches have come under harsh criticism in the past for their allegedly authoritarian beliefs and practices. Critics of the movement say that parents are instructed to break their child’s will, often through physical punishment and beatings.
The practice of “spiritual spanking,” in which parents will slap, spank or beat their children, sometimes for hours at a time, appears to be particularly cruel. Former church members say that “spiritual spanking” is just a form of child abuse practiced under the guise of spiritual education. “This is a systematic form of brainwashing of these children […] to break them completely of the will,” says Jocelyn Zichterman, who says she was beaten repeatedly by her IFB parents. “We were to be completely submissive.”
Zichterman’s father remains an IFB pastor. Zichterman says that children who remain in the movement are spanked until their bodies literally give out.
Hephzibah House advertises itself as a safe, supportive boarding school for young Christian girls who have found themselves heading down the wrong path. “Many parents,” the school writes, “fearing the destructive direction their daughter has taken, realize they are losing control, and would often characterize their situation as being desperate. Accordingly, they seek the help of Hephzibah House.” In reality, former students say, Hephzibah House is nothing more than a prison, one in which young girls are abused and assaulted.
Susan Grotte spent two-and-a-half years at Hephzibah House, beginning when she was 15. She says that the school was advertised as a refuge for young girls, a place to sing, garden and worship that gave young women “a chance to heal.”
Instead, Grotte says she found a home filled with brutal abuse. Her first taste of corporal punishment came on her first day at Hephzibah House, when she was accused of having a “bad attitude” while cleaning the ceiling. She says that two staff members grabbed her, and that Pastor Donald Williams, the school’s leader, threw her to the ground with all his might. Grotte was beaten, she says, with a board.
Another former student, Me’chelle Dowling, has similarly shocking stories. She says that she was only twelve when school staff members told her to strip naked and forced her into a small closet where a man performed a “medical examination.”
Dowling claims that she was physically held down while the man stuck a speculum inside of her. “I was scared,” Dowling told reporters, “I was screaming. I didn’t want him to touch me and there was nothing that I could do.”
Susan Grotte says that 28 girls shared 3 small bedrooms during her time at Hephzibah House. With only 1 bathroom between them, the girls were only allowed to go the bathroom when they were told they could. Girls who broke the rules were paddled, Grotte says.
These damning claims of physical and sexual abuse stand in stark contrast to the statements made in Hephzibah House’s promotional materials. In an FAQ on the school’s website, parents are told that spanking is not used to enforce proper conduct. Instead, the school says, “correction used is extra work assignments or writing out a specific number of Scripture verses. This correction is based on demerits earned from wrongful behavior.” Thus, parents considering the school are assured that corporal punishment is outside the bounds of what occurs at Hephzibah House. As we’ve seen, former students of the school claim that corporal punishment is a way of life at Hephzibah House.