Opinions differ on children's removal

Friday, November 16, 2001

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- When children at a northeast Missouri school were removed and taken into protective custody, it was necessary to withdraw them from a potentially damaging environment, a juvenile officer testified Thursday in federal court.

However, a child psychiatrist evaluating the children for the Heartland Christian Academy said, during the second day of testimony, that he believed it was the removal itself that traumatized children.

On Oct. 30, state officials brought in school buses, a police dog and armed officers to remove 115 resident students at Heartland.

They cited concerns about continued allegations of child abuse by Heartland staff members. A federal judge is weighing whether the court should allow any future removals of students from a school where child abuse is suspected.

The school, in a rural area 150 miles north of St. Louis, uses a tough-love, strong discipline approach to try to turn around troubled children, an approach that includes paddling. Heartland officials deny all the abuse charges.

During Thursday's testimony, Adair County's chief juvenile officer Michael Waddle said he thinks people have the wrong idea about discipline at Heartland.

He said children there weren't receiving light spankings or performing routine farm chores. He said there is evidence some children were paddled repeatedly to the point of bruising; others were forced to work in massive manure pits where they were submerged to their knees, waists or chests.

"They felt the lowest at that point they'd ever felt in their entire lives," he said of the children he questioned.

Child psychiatrist Gilbert Kliman testified on behalf of Heartland Christian Academy during a hearing to determine if federal court approval should be necessary for any future removal of Heartland students.

Kliman, of the Children's Psychological Health Center in San Francisco, offered a very different view of the state's decision to remove the children.

"What adults have to realize is when things like this are done to children, it's perceived by children as a crime where they are the victims," Kliman said. "The way the children perceive it, they are being snatched away."

The children were taken to a juvenile center in Kirksville. Parents, some from as far away as Texas and California, were called to retrieve them. Three days later, a judge determined the children could return to the school.

Kliman said an autistic child previously had a biting problem but had progressed to a point where he was off medication. Now, the problem appeared to be resurfacing.

"He can't stop thinking of wanting to bite flesh, like a dog," he said.

Another child, an orphan from eastern Europe, has started rocking, covering her ears and screaming, behaviors Kliman said she had previously overcome.

He quoted her as saying, "I think they're going to take me away again. I don't know why Satan made this happen to me."

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