Settlements awarded to former students of the Miracle Meadows School now total over $100 million. The latest, about $50 million, was announced on August 23 by lawyers representing 32 former students at Miracle Meadows. Operated independently but supported by Seventh-day Adventist Church entities and administrators, the West Virginia “troubled youth” boarding school permanently closed in 2014 following reports of extensive physical and sexual abuse of children as young as seven years old.
According to attorneys and law enforcement, a student drank cleaning fluid to force a visit to outside medical care where the student was able to report abuse. Nineteen students were then removed by authorities. A 2014 review of state records by the Associated Press found that 13 complaints had been filed against the school in the five years preceding its closure. A local prosecutor would later say that allegations were hard to substantiate because many students were from out of state and many staff members were foreigners on temporary work visas who would often leave the country.
Some of the allegations included that school employees sexually abused, choked, and handcuffed students. Susan Gayle Clark, the school’s director, was arrested and later pleaded guilty to child neglect, failure to report, and obstruction of an officer. These charges related to her failure to report numerous instances of child abuse, which prosecutors said she knew were occurring at Miracle Meadows. In 2016, she served six months in prison.
A 2017 civil lawsuit claimed that Miracle Meadows locked the students in a “quarantine” room where they received minimal food and were given a bucket as a toilet. The suit alleged that part of their punishment was memorizing Bible verses or writing out entire chapters from the Bible, with mistakes lengthening the quarantine. One former child at Miracle Meadows reported confinement for a month and a half. The case named not only Miracle Meadows but also the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, the Columbia Union Conference, and the Mountain View Conference.
Although Miracle Meadows was self-supporting and not part of the denomination’s educational system, it had long boasted about its ties to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The school was founded in 1988 by Susan Gayle Clark and her husband, Bill, whom the Columbia Union Visitor described at the time as an ordained Adventist pastor. The school described its mission as helping children who exhibit “defiance, dishonesty, school failure, trouble with the law, spiritual disinterest, poor social skills, and other behavior that is harmful to them and to society.”
The Visitor also said the school was being “developed and nurtured” by the Mountain View Conference and the Columbia Union. At the time of the school’s closure, its website described Miracle Meadows as an “approved member of the Adventist-Layman’s Services and Industries, the official organization of Seventh-day Adventist Supporting Ministries,” according to an archived copy. The school also said that its board was comprised of “Seventh-day Adventist conference employees,” including Kingsley Whitsett, president of the Mountain View Conference from 2003 to 2006, and education leaders from the Columbia Union. In a 2017 comment to the Washington Post, Whitsett defended the school, calling the former student allegations “overblown” and stating that “the school had to use strong tactics because it took in children with a history of behavioral problems.” He said that the kids were dishonest and acted out and thus needed to be worked with “a little differently than you would with your average students.” Whitsett denied that there was abuse.
Following at least nine separate civil lawsuits filed by former students in 2017, a 2020 suit by 29 plaintiffs was awarded $52 million. Additional cases were consolidated, leading to last week’s award for 32 former students, bringing the total liability to over $100 million. Jesse Forbes, one of the lawyers for the combined case, told the Claims Journal that the latest settlement would be paid out by insurance carriers, though the exact carriers were not named. At least some of the money appears to be coming from a West Virginia state-run insurance program that covered Miracle Meadows and other schools, according to a report from West Virginia Public Broadcasting. For the earlier $52 million settlement, the state insurance covered $27 million. There are also other claims yet to be resolved.
Attorneys for the students say that the extent of the abuse continues to horrify them. “Even as a former homicide prosecutor, I found these atrocities to be beyond anything imaginable,” Guy D’Andrea, an attorney for the combined case, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “These children suffered through abuses that no person should ever encounter.”
“Every penny of this settlement symbolizes the stolen innocence, the muted screams, and the countless tears that every one of our clients experienced at such a young age,” D’Andrea said. “Our children deserved better, and today, they reclaim a piece of their dignity.”
Alex Aamodt is an editor-at-large and the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum. You can contact him here.
Title Image: online photo sourced as “handout,” cropped by Spectrum
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