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Reformatory CP - December 1998

Rocky Mountain News, Denver, Colorado, 11 December 1998

Teen Held In La. Camp Flies Home

Five months' incarceration ends after news stories, court order, lawmaker's intervention win release

By Lou Kilzer, News Staff Writer

Matt Grise came home to western Colorado Thursday night, his long ordeal in a harsh Louisiana detention camp over and a hopeful future restored.

The 15-year-old honor student arrived at Walker Field here at 10:25 p.m. after being released from five months' incarceration at the New Bethany Baptist Church in Arcadia, La.

Two dozen friends and well-wishers greeted him with applause and showered him with hugs and gifts, including a Denver Broncos T-shirt and Colorado Rockies cap.

"How ya doing, buddy?" one friend asked Matt.

"Good," he replied.

Matt, crewcut and dressed in white slacks and a burgundy jacket, appeared happy but was near tears briefly as he thanked those who had worked to secure his freedom.

Matt's aunt and uncle, Sharlene and Payson Grise of Silt, accompanied their nephew on the flight from Shreveport to Houston, Denver and Grand Junction.

A court order instrumental in securing Matt's release prohibits him and his relatives from publicly discussing his incarceration.

"I just simply cried," the teen's grandmother, Joan Grise of Glenwood Springs, said after learning of the boy's release.

She said she heard the news in a voice message from Payson Grise.

"Mom," he told her, "we're on our way to Houston, and we have Matt."

Matt, a popular student with good grades and athletic prowess, has endured a traumatic recent past that began with the death of his mother to cancer three years ago and culminated in his detention at New Bethany.

The church run by fundamentalist preacher Mack Ford houses an undetermined number of youths behind 10-foot-high barbed-wire fences. Ford and his staff use spanking and other forms of physical and psychological punishment to discipline the youths, most sent there by parents who say they can't control them.

In interviews with the Denver Rocky Mountain News and in sworn affidavits in court proceedings, some former New Bethany residents have said they endured severe beatings from Ford and staff members. One boy said that a beating left his back and buttocks bleeding. Six affidavits were supplied to Louisiana state officials in 1996 but New Bethany continued operating.

Matt was not charged with a crime, and no court was supervising his detention at New Bethany, an unlicensed facility that has escaped state regulation because Ford maintained it was a church.

It isn't known what kind of treatment Matt received at New Bethany.

After his mother died in 1995, Matt lived in Silt with his aunt and uncle. But he moved to Independence, Mo., in late 1996 to live with his father, Vincent Russo.

Russo never married Matt's mother and is not listed on the boy' s birth certificate. Matt's relationship with his father and stepmother deteriorated in the last year, even as he was maintaining good grades and a wide circle of friends.

For reasons he will not discuss, Russo sent the boy to New Bethany in July. While Matt was held there, his aunt, uncle, grandmother and friends were not allowed to telephone, write or visit him.

Joan Grise led a campaign to free the teen from New Bethany, even traveling alone there on Thanksgiving Day, only to be rebuffed at the compound's gates by Ford himself.

After the Denver Rocky Mountain News detailed Matt's plight last month, U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., intervened, assigning an aide to launch behind-the-scenes negotiations among Russo and Matt' s aunt and uncle. McInnis' district includes the Western Slope.

Russo agreed Wednesday to relinquish custody of the boy to his aunt and uncle in Colorado.

"To think that this (Matt's detention) could happen and did happen is terrible," Joan Grise said Thursday night. "I can't believe that man (Russo) finally kept his word.'

Copyright 1998, Denver Publishing Co.

San Antonio Express-News, Texas, 27 December 1998

Medina refuge turns 40

By Zeke MacCormack
Express-News Staff Writer

MEDINA - Four decades ago, a far-sighted investment plan by the local Rotary club helped preserve the Medina School District while providing assistance to needy children.

It's still paying dividends today.

The Rotarians sprang into action after local school enrollment dropped to about 50 students in the mid-1950s, raising worries about consolidation with Bandera schools.

"Those years were drought years, and years after the war, and people hadn't moved back," recalled former teacher and Rotarian James Gallant, 80.

"We looked into the possibility of establishing a children's home to instantly increase enrollment in schools, and to be a service to those children who were definitely in need of a place to stay," Gallant said.

With the backing of Rotarians, local residents and the Church of Christ, the former Castle Rock Dude Ranch was purchased for about $100,000.

In 1958, the Medina Children's Home was opened, eight miles north of town on Texas 16 in Bandera County.

The 316-acre home now is licensed to care for 132 youngsters, making it the fourth-largest private children's home in the state. The facility also provides housing, counseling and educational assistance to single mothers.

"We went into this on faith alone, and it's turned out wonderfully," Gallant said.

The home's first clients, orphaned triplets known as Freddy, Teddy and Eddy Duke, were instant celebrities in the tiny town.

And they soon made up half of the school's six-man football team.

The Duke brothers, now 53, have vivid recollections of their six years at the school.

"Because we were the first ones there, I felt like that was our home and all of the other kids who came afterwards were just visiting," said Robin "Freddy" Duke of DeSoto, who is now a missionary minister for the Church of Christ.

The triplets, whose mother died at birth, were thrilled to be reunited after living apart with relatives for years.

But not all of their memories are fond ones.

"We got plenty of whippings out there," said Al "Teddy" Duke of Kerrville. "We had to do a lot of work."

House-parents came and went in a few weeks, and because of the triplets' notoriety, they were frequent performers at fund-raisers.

"They used us three guys to raise publicity for the home to get donations, and we didn't get benefits from it," Al Duke said.

Forty years after its establishment, the home still relies on private donations to fund its $2 million annual budget.

And its staff still promotes hard work and discipline among its wards, sometimes through corporal punishment.

"We believe in helping our children develop a very strong work ethic here," said Tom Hagan, associated director of the home.

But things have changed considerably, and an estimated 4,000 youths have come and gone, since the days of the Duke boys.

There are now 10 large, well-appointed cottages for the children, a staff of 32, and tennis courts and a swimming pool have been added to the rodeo arena and barbecue pit that still survive from its dude ranch days.

After working at the home in the late-1980s, one of the triplets - Robin "Freddy" Duke - became concerned that the amenities could send the wrong message to its clients.

"It turned from a working-farm, rural setting to a country club," said Duke. "Having more luxurious accommodations and a different variety of food and the dainties of life doesn't make for a better atmosphere for raising children to be Christians."

But residents like Amanda Waters, 16, seem to appreciate what they have at the Medina home, both materially and spiritually.

"It's a lot better than I would have (otherwise)," said the Houston native who has lived here 13 years.

She knows better than to gripe about the daily chores required of each child.

"Some kids come in with bad attitudes about the work and a lack of freedom," she said. "My advice is keep your mouth shut and do what you're told."

Lisa Warden, 18, another Houston native, came to the home in 1996 after the death of her father left her parentless.

"There really wasn't any other place to go," Warden said during a break in her daily chores. "I clean and cook and make the boys dinner."

She enjoys the many friends she has at the home where Christian values are promoted in a family setting, but said the ever-changing clientele is disruptive.

"Nothing is too permanent here," she said.

Raising two children of their own prepared house-parents Judy and Raul Ferris to help kids at the home put their lives in order.

"It's a place with a wholesome family structure and people who can provide good examples," Raul Ferris said.

Hagan said the home averages about 80 children, and serves about 105 a year.

"These are children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected," he said. "They're dependent and at risk, and they stay an average of 12-18 months."

Financial assistance for college also is available for children who stay until graduation from high school.

In 1960, the home expanded its clientele to include single mothers, and about 20 mothers are residents at any given time.

"We provide them with an education, secure job training and counseling," said Hagan, adding, "And we get them off welfare."

The enrollment crisis has long since passed in Medina, due in large part to the children's home. Its residents account for about 30 percent of the 320 pupils in the local public schools.

"We have a real good relationship with the home," Medina School Superintendent Gary Ott said. "It's just a part of who we are."

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Copyright Colin Farrell 1998