Dear Mr. Hemingway and Free Press Editors
Upon reading your column on April 18 titled "Church has changed little in attitude toward children," I felt the need to respond to give people who don't know anything about the Twelve Tribes (besides what they read in the press) some enlightenment. As a resident of Island Pond for several years now I can offer a few glimpses into their life here in this town from my observations, as well as information garnished from several conversations with members of the group here. The title of your essay was correct, the Church hasn't changed the way they rear their children, however the implication that there is abuse of the children and improper use of their labor is far from the "truth."
Around town here you can often see the members walking with their children, the children smiling, happy, carefree and well-behaved. They appear clean, healthy, and respectful. When you go into any of the shops or residences, you can see the children wide-eyed watching their parents intensely, learning social skills, good manners, as well as basic business skills from the example their parents provide. They also learn how to be good neighbors, since the community members here are often the first to lend a hand when someone needs it, and they also keep their properties very clean, which is more than I can say for some of the nonmembers who have residences close by. They use the town parks and library, and their businesses here attract more than a few shoppers. They pay taxes and often invite neighbors to share dinner with them.
Frustrating to me is the implication that there is something wrong with using appropriate physical discipline for children when necessary, and reporters constantly dredging up unproven allegations of wrongdoing and abuse from almost two decades ago. The "children" of the infamous 1984 incident are now grown with children of their own, many of them long since past the age of emancipation, yet they have stayed with the group and will tell you themselves there was absolutely nothing wrong with the way their parents raised them. In fact, during the June 18th, 2000 festival and re-enactment of the 1984 raid, there were testimonials by the children taken away from their parents back then, and they swear that there is no apology needed from the parents because they were doing the right thing to begin with. In the wrong at that time, as Judge Mahady confirmed, was the State. I don't believe that any of the parents in the group at this time or any other time in the past believe, as you wrote, that "the Church's treatment of its children is above reproach." After all, we are all only human, but breaking the law is one thing and finding fault with another person's method of discipline and parenting is another.
"A disingenuous holier-than-thou act?" In the media limelight of investigation by the New York Department of Labor the Church chose to release a formal statement and hold a press conference instead of simply saying "no comment." They genuinely feel they have no reason to admit faults and were explaining once again what their parenting style and basic life philosophy was.
Now let's examine the "charges" against the group. From my understanding of the news reports, children were helping their parents prepare boxes to be shipped. The reports don't say it was the middle of the night, nor do they imply it was a hazardous situation. By simply being in the facility and participating ever so slightly in the production process, they are thrown into the same categorization of children victimized by sweatshop owners worldwide. I dare say there can be no comparison made, and by doing so society and authorities are truly doing a horrible injustice to those children they are supposed to be protecting.
"The trouble is, the world of work doesn't operate that way . . . " Mr. Hemingway, I assume you live in Vermont, one of the most rural and agriculturally oriented states in the nation. How do you think the family farms have survived for centuries? If it weren't for family participation in most of these operations, many of them would have folded and that way of life would have disappeared a long time ago. And what about the career centers and technical courses offered to high school students to prepare them for future careers? Are they not being supervised in a work type environment, some using knives in chef training and others using welders and other construction equipment too? In fact, don't these courses strive to duplicate the situations that will be thrust upon them as adults when they enter the world of work for real? It's a sad day for society when children cannot work alongside their parents doing even the slightest of tasks so their family can support them.
In closing, I believe the members of the Twelve Tribes are some of the most genuinely nonviolent, caring, resourceful, and forgiving people I have ever met. Yes, they have changed their name, and they have also changed some of their ways of doing things, but such changes could have only been for the better. I am proud to say they are my "neighbors," and know for a fact they have an open door policy that swings both in and out. They don't have anything to hide and with or without the deep pockets of Estee Lauder or Sundance Company I believe their businesses will thrive because of the quality of their products. This past fall they opened another store and restaurant in Lancaster, NH, and the folks there comment quite often on what a pleasant addition to their town the Twelve Tribes businesses have been. Proudly I stand beside my friends here, and I will forever speak out against those who find faults with them because they choose to distance themselves from the evils of the world around them.
On more than one occasion I have been accused of being "brainwashed," because I have spoken out against those who are critical of the Twelve Tribes and their beliefs, however nothing could be further from the truth. My husband is a trooper and participated in the 1984 incident, I was a Vermont State Police dispatcher for many years before becoming a parent myself. It's time for the press to let the past go, and time for some "common sense" to be incorporated into child labor laws.
Island Pond, VT