New Bethany Home for Girls: Timeline
Print By Dan Swenson, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Email the author
on April 03, 2014 at 1:49 PM, updated April 08, 2014 at 9:12 PM
New Bethany Home for Girls survived for three decades amid law enforcement inquiries, court battles and accusations of abuse. A chronology of key events in the compound’s legal history:
Mack Ford, left, is pictured with a girl in an archival photo from the New Bethany Home for Girls in Arcadia, Louisiana. (handout photo)
New Bethany Home for Girls is founded in Arcadia, La., by Mack Ford, a preacher with the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church denomination.
December: Ford is arrested on four counts of aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon after the Bienville Parish Sheriff receives a report that another employee of New Bethany fired a shotgun into the back of a car carrying four brothers and driving on a road that cuts through the compound. A witness would tell The Times-Picayune in 1983 that Ford was one of several to arrive at the scene after the four young men bailed out of the car and started running for safety — and that Ford emerged from his vehicle with a rifle. The case was never pursued in court, according to news accounts.
Louisiana Department of Health and Human Resources tries to close the school for refusing to allow state inspection and licensing. A district judge rules the state lacks the authority to do so.
May: L.D. Rapier, manager for New Bethany Home for Boys in Longstreet, La., is arrested and charged with cruelty to children after four boys who ran from the home say they were beaten. Ford is quoted in a wire story saying the school is being harassed, the boys can’t be trusted and the school uses “old fashioned ways — discipline.” The school is soon closed and the charges against Rapier are dropped.
October: New Bethany Home For Boys in Longstreet home is relocated to Walterboro, S.C.
Two girls keep watch on the road as their classmates cross at the New Bethany Home for Girls in this archive photo from 1983.
March: Woody Jenkins, then a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, writes an article for the Christian Law Association Newsletter stating that New Bethany, which had 250 girls, was not only cleared of charges that girls were abused there, state officials conclude that “no abuse occurred in the case in question” and “the home was found to be operated in an outstanding manner.”
June: A graduate of New Bethany Home for Girls who says she attended the school for two years sends a letter to law enforcement, then-Gov. Dave Treen, Jenkins and other elected state officials saying she witnessed abuse.
August: Then-Bienville Parish Sheriff Arvis Whitman is quoted in The Times-Picayune saying the home is “a little penitentiary.”
May: New Bethany Home for Boys in Waltersboro, S.C., closes and 37 students are taken into protective custody after authorities find a 14-year-old boy sleeping in a windowless padlocked cell, where he had been for several days. Two employees are charged with unlawful neglect of a child and conspiracy to commit unlawful neglect as well as kidnapping.
September: The Waltersboro employees plead no contest to a single, lesser charge of false imprisonment.
September: Ford opens a new entity called the New Bethany Church Boarding Academy in the old, shuttered New Bethany Baptist Home for Boys facility in Waltersboro, S.C. A judge finds Ford in contempt of court, saying Ford admitted residential students under the new name against a court order. But the judge doesn’t fine or jail Ford and instead allows him to keep operating the new school.
A newspaper clipping from The News-Star in 1988 shows girls leaving the Home following a raid.
June: Twenty-eight students are removed from New Bethany Home for Girls in Arcadia, La., following complaints of abuse by two runaways. Though all girls are given the option of leaving, 24 at first remain. New Bethany staff members refuse to cooperate in the investigation, decline to identify themselves and take photos of state workers. According to court documents, interviews with 47 girls produce information that supports allegations of abuse, extreme emotional abuse and threat of further harm or injury: “Many of the residents were exhibiting great anxiety.” Ford denies allegations of abuse, but says the home does use a wooden paddle for discipline.
July 7: Social services director for the state of Louisiana signs an affidavit saying that he has reasonable cause to believe children have been abused and that male residents were hidden from the facility prior to investigators arriving at the home. He demands a full list of names of kids enrolled as well as employees, volunteers and patrons, and says it is imperative that he interview Ford and other staff. Judge Robert Butler signs an order authorizing him to enter the facility and conduct interviews.
July 12: New Bethany files a motion for protective order from Butler’s order.
July 26: Ford delivers a sermon before about 300 people at Merrywoods Baptist Church and acknowledges paddling girls who misbehave “as a last resort.” Behind him, 16 girls from the home wear navy dresses, white blouses and red vests. “The bureaucrats don’t want us to teach them our faith,” The Associated Press quotes Ford as saying.
November: The Louisiana 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal rules state officials have the right to enter the compound without infringing on New Bethany’s rights of notice or due process. But it also finds that the state was not authorized to require physical or psychological exams of staff, nor was it authorized to remove students. The court’s argument against removal of children hinged in part on the fact that child welfare officials did not see cause enough to remove all the children, but left some behind.
May: Ford files a federal lawsuit against the State of Louisiana, requesting a permanent order to keep government officials from interfering in New Bethany operations.
January: The Associated Press reports that New Bethany Home for Girls has closed, at least temporarily. Ford’s wife, Thelma Ford, cites reorganization of the nonprofit. “After 21 years,” she says, “everybody deserves a break.”
July: A judge dismisses Ford’s federal lawsuit. Both parties are ordered to bear their own costs and attorneys fees.
Diagram of the New Bethany Home for Girls
June 21: State fire marshal and child welfare investigators arrive at New Bethany Home for Girls. Welfare workers want to interview about 80 of 200 students about allegations of abuse and neglect. They are turned away. “It’s a conspiracy,” Ford is quoted saying in a newspaper article. “They are after my hide.” The home had not been inspected by the state fire marshal in 10 years, even though policy required such facilities be inspected once a year. Court records indicate the child welfare inquiry was prompted by a child who suffered head injuries and, as a result of untreated puncture wounds, impetigo. But an attorney for Ford contends they wanted to question the children about the school’s religious teachings.
June 28: Ford agrees to let fire marshal inspect the premises but demands the inspectors must be from Baton Rouge. But he fails to deliver students to state child welfare workers to be interviewed about the child abuse allegations.
August: Ford closes the home, then files a lawsuit in federal court against the state fire marshal and the Department of Social Services, charging the state has violated his civil rights in an attempt to shut the school down because it opposes his fundamentalist Christian views.
September: 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court’s decision, determining that Ford has shown no evidence that fire inspectors and state social workers are plotting to shut down New Bethany Home for Girls.
June: The board of directors for New Bethany Home for Girls votes to close the residential boarding school and turns over all property and bank accounts to New Bethany Baptist Church. “Having lost state and federal cases and with no further recourse available, it has become necessary to seek other options for the holdings,” minutes from the meeting state.
Jennifer Halter, front, and Teresa Frye walk towards the Bienville Parish Courthouse building where Halter filed a rape report.
July: Joanna Wright, 53, of Houston, Texas, drives to Arcadia, La., to make a report with the Bienville Parish Sheriff’s Office claiming sexual abuse by Mack Ford.
August: Simone Jones, 46, makes a report with local law enforcement at Elk County Sheriff’s Office in Kansas claiming sexual abuse by Mack Ford.
December: Jennifer Halter, 39, of Las Vegas, Nev., travels to Arcadia, La., to make a report with the Bienville Parish Sheriff’s Office claiming sexual abuse by Mack Ford and others.
January: A fourth woman in Massilon, Ohio, confirms making a report to her local law enforcement claiming sexual abuse by Mack Ford.
Sources: News clippings; state and federal court documents; and interviews; compiled by staff writer Rebecca Catalanello.
Read the stories in this series:
One woman’s journey Part 2:
30 years of controversy Part 3:
Couple remembers a runaway Part 4:
Former resident helps victims
View full size
Mack Ford, left, is pictured with a girl in an archival photo from the New Bethany Home for Girls in Arcadia Louisiana. Numerous confirmed reports of child abuse surfaced over the years. No one was ever prosecuted, including founder and pastor Mack Ford. In the last year, four women have made reports to law enforcement claiming sexual abuse at the home. (handout photo)