Lawsuit claims abuse, threats at church farm in Pennsylvania

Nov 30, 2021, 2:40 PM | Updated: 4:19 pm

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A federal lawsuit filed this month claims boys and young men at a church-related farm business in Pennsylvania were subjected to forced labor and punishment that included dragging chains and breaking up rocks with a hammer.

The lawsuit by two former residents of Liberty Ridge, an 80-acre farm in Juniata County near the state’s geographic center, said the two plaintiffs were held there in violation of federal laws against human trafficking and forced into long hours of grueling work.

The residents, identified by their initials, now live in New Jersey and Missouri. In Pennsylvania federal court on Nov. 17, they sued the Ephrata-based Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church and Related Areas; the church’s nonprofit corporation that oversees Liberty Ridge, the Mennonite Messianic Mission; and Liberty Ridge Farm in McAlisterville and its owner.

The defendants do not have legal representation listed in the online case docket. A call to a number for Liberty Ridge listed in a Mennonite directory rang and then was disconnected. A woman answered the phone at a number listed as a contact for the church but then hung up.

Liberty Ridge was set up in Juniata County in 2011 for boys and young adult men the church considered troubled and to have spiritual, emotional and social needs as well as behavioral problems. The plaintiffs say the farm raises chicken, beef and pork; builds wooden pallets and fiberglass fence gates; and does interstate trucking.

The residents or their families had to pay around $2,300 a month and their labor — often six long days a week — is unpaid, the lawsuit states.

Those deemed to have acted “against the Bible” or otherwise broken the farm’s rules were forced to endure what were called “consequences,” among them being limited to rice and beans and water, digging up tree stumps by hand and dragging chains over their shoulder, according to the lawsuit.

The staff used zip ties to restrain residents and at times dragged residents as punishment, the plaintiffs claim. The residents allegedly were told they would be thrown out of the church and kept from their families if they spoke of leaving the farm.

“I can only tell you that law enforcement is aware of the allegations and taking the appropriate steps,” Juniata County District Attorney Cory J. Snook said in an email late Tuesday, declining further comment.

The plaintiffs’ Harrisburg lawyer, Renee Franchi, said Tuesday she believes only a handful of boys and young men were housed at the farm at a time. She encouraged others to come forward.

One of the plaintiffs says he spent three years there, starting when he was about 14 and ending in 2014. He says he was never paid for his labor and at the start, received no schooling. He claims he was tied up for at least 30 minutes and disciplined by being put to work with limited or no food or water for extended periods.

The other plaintiff was placed at Liberty Ridge about two years ago, after he had just turned 18, and was a resident of the farm for about 10 months. He also claims he was restrained and put to hard work with little or no food or water.

“Defendants threatened (him) that if he left, they would have the police drag him back because the cops were on their side,” the lawsuit states.

The Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church and Related Areas is a conservative group with dozens of congregations and thousands of members, largely in Pennsylvania. It is considered one of the most conservative of the car-driving plain Mennonite groups, according to Edsel Burdge, research associate at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College.

The complaint, first reported by The Morning Call of Allentown, alleges violations of federal law against forced labor, human trafficking and organized crime and seeks damages, unpaid wages and other financial penalties.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has not inspected or regulated Liberty Ridge Farm but is investigating the unlicensed facility, said press secretary Brandon Cwalina. He said the agency is working with local law enforcement and is looking into the allegations.

“As far as we know, there was some sort of investigation into the home,” said Franchi, lawyer for the plaintiffs. “I do not know which agency looked into it, but from what we have heard from our clients, they are aware there was some sort of investigation into Liberty Ridge Farm.”

Messages seeking comment were left with children and youth services and state police in Juniata County.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Lawsuit claims abuse, threats at church farm in Pennsylvania