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Reformatory CP - July 2001

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The Kansas City Star, 28 July 2001

Law challenges preacher's principles, but religious development's founder defends ministry to children

By Matt Stearns and Malcolm Garcia
The Kansas City Star


NEWARK, Mo. -- Charlie Sharpe has money to burn and souls to save and just wants the state of Missouri to get off his back.

Up to now Sharpe has generally gotten what he wants.

He made a fortune in insurance in Kansas City, lost it all, made it all again -- plus a lot more -- and found God along the way.

That potent combination of deep pockets and deeper beliefs gives Sharpe, 74, absolute certainty in his own rectitude and the faith that he can overcome any obstacle in his path.

He needs both now more than ever, as he battles authorities over goings-on at the Heartland Community, a 17,000-acre independent Christian settlement that Sharpe has spent $20 million on since he founded it in 1996. The colony sprawls across three counties and includes a cattle ranch, a dairy operation, a school, restaurants and houses. About 350 persons call it home.

Sharpe calls Heartland a place where troubled folks -- children and adults -- find God, kick their bad habits and learn the value of discipline and hard work through the community's Christian-based recovery programs.

State and county authorities say it is a place where five workers took the concept of discipline too far.

The five were charged last month in Lewis County with child abuse. The complaints say that 11 teen-agers were forced to stand in manure for as long as two hours as discipline for breaking community rules.

A preliminary hearing is Sept. 11. Four of the five accused have returned to their roles at Heartland, and the fifth is awaiting permission from county officials.

Sharpe denies the allegations, saying the teens simply were shoveling manure -- and only briefly -- in a form of punishment that has since been abandoned.


A place to recover

Heartland exists where virtually nothing else does -- a swath of northeastern Missouri where bales of hay and rows of corn crowd to the edges of bumpy county roads, where many towns have more boarded-up buildings than ones in use.

Looming from the flats stretching between these towns is the first hint of any kind of development, and the unique nature of that development: a water tower topped by an enormous white cross.

Sharpe grew up on a family farm nearby before setting off to make his fortune as founder of the Kansas City-based Ozark National Life Insurance Co., a regional power that now holds about $8 billion in insurance policies.

He returned here, burning right up to his ruddy cheeks to serve the Lord. While Sharpe still runs Ozark, he spends only a couple of days a week on company business. He commutes to Kansas City by private plane from Heartland, into which he pours most of his energy -- and most of his money.

Though he would not reveal his net worth, Sharpe said he planned to spend $200 million on the Heartland Community.


A modern school building -- complete with blue lockers lining the concrete-block walls -- serves the children who live in the development, from kindergarten though 12th grade. Sundays, the school gym becomes a church, where attendance is mandatory for everyone living at Heartland. Sharpe himself preaches to the faithful.

A few miles down another country road are two other Heartland businesses: a 7,000-cow dairy operation (whose milk trucks read, "Jesus is the Answer"), and a land and cattle operation where prime, corn-fed black Angus are fattened for slaughter.

It is home to Sharpe, his wife and a lot of folks trying to make sense of lives that just spun out of control.

They come here to take a cure for what ails them -- drugs, alcohol, depression, just plain wildness.

The majority of participants in the recovery program are children -- about 115 of the 200 persons in the programs. They are placed there by their parents and guardians or by courts. Most other students at the Heartland Christian Academy are the children of community staff members. A few students come from local towns, sent by parents who want them to have a strict Christian education.

Tuition is free for most; those who can afford it pay $125 a month.


There's also a heavy dose of discipline, with paddling a preferred method of doling out punishment to children.

One 16-year-old former student and his mother expressed support for Heartland and its techniques, but they refused to give their names.

"I liked it," said the boy, who attended Heartland for a year. "I was learning. They made me feel like I had to learn. If I needed help, they helped me."

He thought the rules "kind of weird," and described a demerit system known as "tallies." For every 10 tallies accrued, a student receives three spankings with a paddle.

"They make you bend over with your hands on a chair," he said. "It depends who's doing the spanking if it hurts. I think it was good for me. The rules are just a little far-fetched."

Among the rules, the boy said: Students cannot be in the halls without a pass, cannot talk to members of the opposite sex without an adult present, cannot dye or spike their hair, and cannot wear jewelry except for watches and class rings.

When she enrolled her son, the boy's mother understood the kind of discipline used at Heartland.

"The rules are real strict," she said. "Some kids need that more than others. I signed a paper agreeing that if he didn't follow the rules, he'd get swatted."

Some child advocates who question the use of physical punishment say abuses can occur, because in Missouri religious institutions are exempt from most state regulations.

"Paddling, shoveling manure, those kinds of tactics don't work with most kids, especially kids from negative environments," said Elizabeth Gaines, youth policy analyst with Citizens for Missouri's Children. "It's a form of negative reinforcement that drives them further away from the help they need."

On April 3, authorities say, discipline turned to abuse for 11 teen-agers who lived at Heartland.

Nobody disputes that the children -- some wearing boots, some not -- were in a concrete-lined manure pit.

Authorities say the children were forced to stand in the pit -- in manure up to chest-high -- for up to two hours, and that one child's clothes were streaked with manure.

Sharpe and others at Heartland say the children shoveled manure for about 40 minutes. They say the child's clothes were streaked with manure because the children got in a manure fight, and the one child slipped and fell.

Because the children considered it a joke, the manure-shoveling was discontinued as a punishment, Sharpe said.

Court documents say the punishment was "cruel and inhuman."

Sharpe darkly questions the motives of authorities, hinting at a conspiracy to shut down Heartland and promising that "if this is not dropped, which we hope it is, there's going to be a lot of exciting things....We sincerely believe the truth will come out, and it's going to be a shock to the community when it does."

In the aftermath of the child-abuse charges, county authorities removed several children from Heartland who had been placed there by courts in eastern Missouri. Juvenile official Philip Livesay of Missouri's 10th Circuit Court called the removal a safeguard until the court battle was resolved.

Sharpe counters that the removal of children was the real child abuse.

"When these kids have been abused and hammered on and their lives disrupted all of their life," he says, "now they come here and find a place of safety, a place of hope and because of whatever reason, the state says, 'No, this is not a safe place, we need to get these kids out of here'."


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