NEWARK - Heartland Christian Academy of Newark, where five employees have been arrested on a charge of abuse of a child for assigning children under age 17 work in manure pits, remains open as these employees prepare for their day in court.
In related legal action, Heartland is suing three Lewis County officials for their methods of prosecution in the child abuse cases. (See separate article).
The five Heartland employees are scheduled for arraignment Wednesday, July 18, in Associate Circuit Court in Monticello.
Lewis County Sheriff David Parrish reported they were arrested June 28 and later released, after posting bail on their bond. The charges against them were filed June 26 by Jules De Coster, Lewis County prosecuting attorney.
Parrish said the charges resulted from these Heartland employees having 11 children ages approximately 14 to 17 work in manure pits on the Heartland dairy farm. The range of punishment for conviction of abuse of a child is up to seven years in prison, he said.
Each defendant is charged with one or more counts of a Class C felony of abuse of a child, and is alleged to have "knowingly inflicted cruel and inhuman punishment upon a child less than 17 by forcing (him or her) to stand in a manure pit."
The defendants and number of counts of the charge are:
* Farah Avsaada, 23, of Steffenville - one count.
* Ronald G. Osbon Jr., 23, of La Belle - 13 counts.
* Michael K. Peterson, 36, of Newark - 10 counts.
* Charles Robert Patchin, 33, of Newark - 19 counts.
* Eric Kiepke, 28, of Bethel - seven counts.
The dates of the alleged offenses range between March 1 and April 7.
The investigation that led to the charges being filed began with county officials being informed children were working in manure pits, according to Parrish. "There were community people not involved with Heartland that were concerned about a rumor that children were alleged to have been made to go into manure pits as punishment," he said.
"After we initiated the investigation, we spoke with actual employees of the farming operation. They were able to give us what they had seen," he said. "At that time that led to interviewing the children. From the folks I talked to in the investigation and from the farm hands themselves, it was their impression that these manure pits could cause a threat of harm from different infections, (such as), E coli, salmonella and hepatitis.
"We have been advised the manure pit treatment had been stopped prior to our being involved in the investigation.
"I feel like we have started a judicial ball," he said. "We are required to investigate cases, and we turn it over to a prosecutor. He can look at the information and say, 'This is not a case,' or 'This is against the law,' and the judge has to determine whether or not a warrant (is issued). Once it goes to the prosecutor, it is essentially out of our hands."
Heartland is continuing its operation and welcomes visitors, according to Brian Kyhos, Heartland public relations representative.
Kyhos said all five employees who were arrested still have jobs there. "They all have a job waiting for them."
Kyhos added that "At the request of (juvenile officer) Mike Waddle, they are not currently working with the children, but once this issue passes, and hopefully the charges are dismissed, they are welcome to continue as members of Heartland staff."
Kyhos said at the end of the 2000-01 school year, Heartland had 225 students enrolled, and "about 125 were at-risk kids in the program. The rest of the students were local kids and children of faculty members." The school teaches kindergarten through grade 12, and there is a separate adult program, he said.
Heartland founder Charles Sharpe, who serves as pastor of the academy and president of its corporation, has issued a statement in which he said for the past six years Heartland has ministered to the needs of young people - mostly teen-agers - who have behavioral difficulties and often have been in trouble with drugs and alcohol.
Sharpe said Dr. Gilbert Kliman, M.D., a board-certified child psychiatrist and medical director of the Children's Psychological Health Center Inc. in San Francisco in mid-May described Heartland as an "exceptionally caring, well-structured, and clearly organized and clearly adult-led environment."
Sharpe said the arrest and prosecution of his employees and their charges "threaten to overwhelm the enormous good we've done at Heartland, the dozens of lives we've turned around and many families we've helped heal."
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