Coercion, Conformity, and Kids From the Waco Cult
By Jack Kyle Daniels and Bobby Gilliam,
Reclaiming Children and Youth
Vol. 6 No.3 Fall 1997

In a climate where the rallying cry is to "get tough" on children, it is instructive to reflect on the dangers of coercive systems of childrearing. Obedience training exacts superficial compliance but cannot instill internalized controls. The following is an account of firsthand experiences with the children of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, during and after its final days.

On February 28, 1993, the staff members of the Methodist Children's Home in Waco, Texas, became engaged in a life-altering experience. We provided care for 20 of the 21 children who were released over a period of several days from the Branch Davidian compound before its final destruction (see Note). Ranging in age from 5 months to 12 years, the children were admitted to Methodist Children's Home on an emergency basis and were all housed together in one of our regular campus living units.

Upon arrival at our campus, the children were very apprehensive and highly agitated. They had witnessed the shootout from inside the compound. They had been sent out of the compound for some reason. They had been questioned and confronted by law enforcement officers. They had been brought to us by strangers, childcare workers from Child Protective Services.

These children had been taught that strangers would harm them, and they literally did not know what to expect. In addition, they had been instructed not to reveal any secrets about the compound and that lying to strangers was all right because outsiders were bad people. To note only one indication of their anxiety, we should mention that on March 7, one week after their release from the compound, these children had heart rates higher than normal, ranging from 108 to 148. Over the next 51 days, these children taught us many things. Our contact with them has certainly changed our lives forever.

They were very aggressive in their play, regardless of the setting, with weapons and militaristic ideas at the center. From building blocks they created toys that resembled bombs and tanks. Early in their stay, they told us they customarily watched war movies on television; we later learned that some of the boys had been involved in paramilitary training. Some of the children were quite sophisticated in their knowledge of firearms and tried to engage the FBI agents in technical discussions of the characteristics of weapons. One 3-year-old was observed playing in the backyard with a stick in each hand. When asked what he had in his hands, he replied, "This is my sword and this is my gun." He immediately began making shooting gestures and noises. During one of their play times, the children built a fort. Clearly, they had been taught to work together as a team, and they were quite efficient and effective in their skills. Although they used various sizes of materials, they managed to make each wall come out level. During the time they built the fort, they would march single file and sing a song, "We are the children of the Lord, we will fight and stand our ground." Every child knew all the words to this song.

The children quickly learned the organizational chart of the Methodist Children's Home. They knew who was president and vice-president, and each of the supervisory personnel. Within their group, the oldest child of each gender was looked to for leadership and was often consulted as to whether it was okay to eat certain foods or engage in conversation

Outwardly, these children looked much like their peers, given the age range and ethnic mix; however, they had suffered greatly from the trauma of what they had witnessed, as well as from the mind control and harsh discipline of the compound. One of the earliest messages we gave them was that they would not be physically hit for any reason. We were able to see many changes, and they learned to trust our staff, who offered them genuine love, concern, and caring. Initially, the children were clearly skeptical of our stance that the Home was a safe place. One child stated, "I will do something one of these days that will make you mad enough to hit me." One night during bath time, the same child refused to get out of the tub, saying, "I am getting under your skin, and you want to hit me. I am going to keep this up until you do." This child was assured on both occasions that we would not strike him in any manner while he was in our care. Subsequently, the child asked the staff member, if he got out of the bathtub, would he be allowed to sit in the staff person's lap?

The children adjusted very well to our routines, which were changed from time to time to add new activities and normalize their day. By the time the standoff at the Branch Davidian compound ended, their routine was very similar to that of the other children in our care. The children's previous experiences in the compound gave them some difficulty with what we considered normal routines. Initially; during bath times, one of the children would scream, "No, no, no, no'" when the shower was turned on. When they were allowed to feel that the water was warm, not cold (which was what they were accustomed to), they understood they could enter without concern into the shower or the tub. Often they would play for long periods of time in the warm water.

It was obvious the children had not had many normal experiences. For example, they were quite thrilled when they had grilled cheese sandwiches. They always inquired as to how many sandwiches they could have, and we assured them they could have as many as we could cook. When the children were provided corn dogs for one meal, they had to be cautioned not to eat the stick.

Two concerns were often raised in regard to conditions within the compound: Were physical and sexual abuse present? A professional childcare worker must make a distinction between what a clinician would refer to as abuse and the legal standards of evidence that may be necessary to prove abuse. Regardless of the legal technicalities, we are convinced that there was evidence of both physical and sexual abuse. As regards the latter, the press and former cult members reported that David Koresh had multiple wives, including girls 12 to 16 years old. Indeed, an 11-year-old girl in our care wore a plastic Star of David and told us that this had been given to her by David Koresh, symbolic of the fact that she had "The Light" and could be chosen by him to be a wife. She openly disclosed to members of our team that Koresh would have sex with her in the future and felt that this was okay for a girl her age.

It is also clear that these children had been exposed to a variety of ideas and experiences and had lived in an environment that had an unhealthy, malignant, and predatory quality of sexuality. The children associated sex with power. The girls appeared to have been "prepared" for sexual activity at an early age, well in advance of their emotional-cognitive capabilities to understand the complex implications of their sexuality or sexual behaviors. The children were quite confused by the fact that our homeparents stayed in the same room and slept in the same bed. They stated that men and women did not sleep together in the compound, with the exception of Koresh.

As one might also expect, these children had many nightmares and night terrors. There were references to the coercive, punitive, paranoid, vindictive, and emotionally barren atmosphere of the compound. For instance, the children described the use of public humiliation, peer monitoring, censorship, special or capricious reward and punishment schemes, and isolationism. The atypical family restructuring; the requirement of allegiance and obedience to Koresh; the punitive rather than socializing style of discipline; the isolation from, and intolerance of, other ways of thinking led to a coercive, fearful, emotionally restrictive environment for these children. Viewing a videotape of the children still inside the compound during the negotiation process reinforced our impressions regarding the fear that Koresh instilled in the children. This tape was supposed to tell us how well the children in the compound were being treated. Interviews with these children showed no spontaneity in responses: They merely repeated Koresh's words, closely monitoring his nonverbal cues for the "correct" response. In some cases, two- or three-word responses were produced in slow, low monotones. The children were clearly very intimidated by Koresh, as indicated by their wary demeanor in his presence.

In the mornings at the Home, the girls and boys did various chores in terms of the normal activities of running the unit. One of the girls would often cry because she was not able to make her bed as well as the other girls. Because of this, she was afraid that the "devil" was going to get her. Many of the children were bed wetters and, in fear of expected punishment, they would hide the wet sheets. We assured them that the sheets would be washed, clean sheets would be provided, and no punishment would take place.

Several children told us that mothers and, occasionally, Koresh paddled them when they were unable to comply with the rules of the compound. The children were open about being disciplined by the "helper," either a large boat paddle or some kind of large stirring spoon. They expected to be physically disciplined for any minor behavior or social infraction. One of the children relayed a story about scratching Koresh's car as he rode by on his bicycle. He said first Koresh beat rim, and then his own father took the "helper" and beat him further. They reported that children who were unwilling to participate in staged "fights" also were physically disciplined. The context of these fights is not clear; however, it appears that adults (frequently Koresh) encouraged fighting between the children as part of their paramilitary training.

Our observations of the children during their first few weeks at the Home suggested that they had come from an environment where severe physical punishment was used for behavior control. Initially, the children expected to be hit when they did things as minor as spilling milk. When they realized there was no external threat of force, they began to have difficulties with behavioral acting out and compliance to directives. It became apparent that our initial assessment that these children were "well-behaved" was incorrect: Their behavior was not a manifestation of internalized ideas but an acquired behavior motivated by fear. The first children to arrive asked if we had a whipping room when they saw the stairs to the basement; they told us about going into the basement of the compound to be whipped when the adults did not want anyone to hear them cry.

Independent of external reports regarding excessive physical punishment, there was some physical evidence, significant historical reporting, and clear behavioral and emotional functioning consistent with an excessive style of corporal punishment.

Gradually the children began to learn that the Home was a safe place. One of them was overheard saying that "it does not hurt to be here." During one of the prayers, one of the children said, "God bless all the policemen here that are keeping us safe." After the tragedy of the fire that destroyed the compound and killed all those within, it was our task to tell the children because each of them had lost some family member. One of the children expressed extreme guilt that his mother and sister were gone but he was still alive. On the other hand, the child who had previously assured us we would eventually hit him stated, "I am not going to get no more beatings."

After the fire took the lives of their parents, it was eventually decided that the children would be leaving with various extended family members approved by the state. One afternoon one of the homeparents was in his room taking a nap when the boy who had assured us we would hit him crawled up in the bed beside him. The child put his hand on the homeparent's face and felt his forehead, chin, nose, and cheeks. When the homeparent opened his eyes and inquired as to what he was doing, the child replied, "I want to make sure I always remember what you look like."

It took less than 51 days to see the unraveling of the abusive, punitive, coercive style of behavior control used in the compound; however, the total impact of events on these children may not be known for many years. It did become increasingly clear to us that these coercive techniques did not bring about internalization of controls or values. The children were robbed of a portion of their childhood in an effort to take away their individualism, uniqueness, creativity, and spirit.

Jack Kyle Daniels has been president of Methodist Children's Home in Waco, Texas, for 19 years. Dr. Daniels has the unique distinction of being the chief executive officer of the place where he resided from the age of 2 until his teen years. He is past president of the National Association of Homes and Services for Children; past president of the Southwest Association of Executives of Homes for Children; and the former chairman of the Children, Youth and Family Session of the National Association of Health and Welfare Ministries of United Methodist Church. He has worked with youth who are at risk for 34 years. Bobby Gilliam is the vice president for childcare at the Methodist Children's Home. He is a diplomate in clinical social work and is a licensed master social worker and advanced clinical practitioner in the state of Texas. He has spent 24 years working with children who are at risk. Jack Daniels can be contacted at: Methodist Children's Home, 1111 Herring Ave., Waco, TX 76708.

The authors wish to express their deepest gratitude to Richard and Diane Johnson, who were the homeparents and primary caretakers for the Davidian children, for their contributions at that time and to this article.

One of the children had special medical problems and stayed with us for a few hours until a special-needs foster home could be found.

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