The decades-long controversy surrounding New Bethany Home for Girls in Bienville Parish was renewed last Friday, Dec. 6 when seven former residents of the home returned to Arcadia so that two of the women could file formal charges of sexual assault against the now-defunct home’s owner, Rev. Mack Ford.
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A seventh arrived on Saturday to file her complaint.
Although only two of the six who flew in from North Carolina, Nevada, Florida and Texas, claimed to been sexually abused while living at the home, the others said they were there to lend moral support to the two, one of whom is said to be terminally ill with an inoperable brain tumor.
Sheriff John Ballance, who had his own experience with the home during his career as a state trooper some 30 years ago, met with the women, took the statements of the two claiming sexual abuse, and promised to do everything possible to resolve the matter.
An earlier statement of one of the alleged victims was turned over to state police in Bossier City in October, Ballance said.
In September, Ballance told LouisianaVoice he had picked up a runaway from the home decades ago when he was a state trooper. Instructed by the sheriff’s department to return her to the facility, he said he refused to force her to go back because of her claims of abuse.
Allegations about beatings, handcuffing and other forms of punishment of girls at the home first came to light when the Baton Rouge Advocate began an investigation of the home in 1974. Editors, however, quickly killed the investigation before any stories could be written and the issue lay dormant until the late 1980s when the Louisiana Department of Health and Human Resources began looking into abuse allegations. In 1988, the state raided the unlicensed home located south of Arcadia on LA. 9 and removed 29 girls from the facility.
Simultaneous to that raid, the Bethel Home for Wayward Children in Lucedale, Mississippi, was closed down by officials in that state. Six months after the New Bethany raid, however, it remained open and was not closed down until 1992.
There were claims of girls at New Bethany having to clean toilets with their bare hands, being locked in isolation with only a bucket for a toilet, girls being handcuffed to their beds and being made to stand all day with no restroom breaks, beatings with wooden dowels, PVC pipe, paddles, belts and limbs.
A state game warden, interviewed by the Advocate in 1974, said he would take confiscated deer that had been killed illegally by hunters to the home. “On one occasion,” he said, “Ford asked if he could have my handcuffs.”
New Bethany Baptist Church (foreground); girls’ windowless dormitory (background).
The public face of New Bethany, however, was quite different. Girls’ quartets would be clad in long dresses and paraded before church congregations to sing, figuratively and literally, the praises of New Bethany in efforts to generate “love offerings” from church members.
A father who pulled his daughter out of the home said, “He (Ford) would have those little girls sing hymns and give testimony to churches and the church members would hit the floor with their knees while reaching for their wallets” to give Ford money for his home.
The claims of physical abuse and rape are not new to the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) Church with which New Bethany and Ford are affiliated.
The First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, received a great deal of notoriety over the sexual trysts two of its ministers had with female church members over a period of several years. Their misconduct was subsequently repeated at other churches where they ministered.
And when their behavior was revealed, it was the women victims who were required to stand before the congregation and apologize and ask forgiveness for tempting the men, who invariably went unpunished and indeed, continued to receive near idol status from the congregation.
Likewise, group homes where abuse has been documented tend to receive devout support from area churches. Instead of asking those who run the homes to explain their behavior, their accusers are routinely treated as pariahs while the accused are welcomed as heroes at church rallies on their behalf.
Adherents to IFB dogma, for example, discourage intermarriage or even any contact with those of other religious beliefs, distrust government, favor home schooling, and believe that spankings should commence as early as 15 months of age.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Alexandra Zayas last year was allowed to do what the Advocate refused to do. She wrote a lengthy investigative series on claims of physical abuse at several group homes in Florida. http://www.tampabay.com/faccca/
Just as she found in Florida and as had been found earlier in Texas, Louisiana homes are unlicensed and unregulated by the state, thus allowing the operators free rein in the areas of discipline and education—so long as it is done in the name of religion.
The group homes employ the same textbooks that rely heavily on the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) and BJU (Bob Jones University) Press curricula—the same resources used by many of Louisiana’s voucher and charter schools being approved by the Louisiana Department of Education. The textbooks eschew traditional science and history courses, choosing instead to apply Old Testament interpretations in their teachings.
Encaged walkway over public road discourages thoughts of escape while walking from one area of New Bethany to another.
Following their meeting with Sheriff Ballance, the women drove to New Bethany and attempted to confront Ford, who instead, refused to talk to them and walked away.
Sign displaying times of services remains outside church 21 years after New Bethany’s closure.
Clear message that visitors are no longer welcome at New Bethany Home for Girls or at New Bethany Baptist Church.
And just in case one misses the sign…