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Children of Ecclesia Slow to Cut Ties to Past

November 15, 1988|SHERYL STOLBERG | Times Staff Writer

They are, in some ways, just like ordinary kids. They like roller-skating and eating pizza and the music of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson.

But they also lie awake at night and worry. They have nightmares and sometimes wet their beds. Some have asked adults to hit them because they believe it will help them to be better behaved.

Simple math and reading are a mystery to some--even the older ones. Yet they can recite word-for-word from the Book of Romans, and they know the 90-minute Jane Fonda workout video by heart.

They seem younger than their years. One 16-year-old, presented with a choice of activities in a room full of books, games and toys, selected a coloring book and crayons. And even more than their parents, from whom they are separated, they miss the man they call "Big El"--Eldridge Broussard Jr.

Taken Into Custody

These are the children of the Watts-based Ecclesia Athletic Assn., taken into custody by Oregon officials one month ago after the beating death of Broussard's 8-year-old daughter, Dayna. Authorities have alleged that Ecclesia members subjected the children to "systematic beatings" with paddles and electrical cords and that some of them witnessed Dayna's death.

"They are not so obviously damaged that it just jumps out," said Les Busch, the psychologist in charge of caring for 37 of the 53 children. "They frolic and they play, but there's a heaviness that they have. Some are pretty joyless."

On Monday, authorities gave a press tour that was limited to two wire service reporters who visited the reform schools in Salem and Woodburn, Ore., where the 37 children in Busch's care are staying. The other 16 children have been placed in foster homes. As a condition of the tour, the reporters were not allowed to use the children's names or ask them about their past experiences with Ecclesia.

Some of the children told United Press International that they have been mistreated by state workers, but others said they liked their new homes. The boys seemed happier and were more talkative and playful than the girls, who said they disliked their math and reading classes and the child care specialists assigned to work with them, according to the UPI report.

"We don't live here," said one of the older girls. "We are just here because somebody stole us from our home."

Living Arrangements

Of the 37 being housed at the reform schools, 15 are girls and 22 are boys. The girls live in a four-bedroom cottage at the Hillcrest School in Salem, and the boys live in a converted recreation hall at the MacLaren School in Woodburn. The children, ages 3 to 16, do not mingle with the others at the school.

Officials at the Oregon Children's Services Division say they intend to keep the 53 children in protective custody for at least another 30 to 45 days while child-care and mental health specialists continue to examine and monitor them.

Although it is too soon to tell what long-term effects they will suffer, Busch said, "There are going to be some kids that are going to need help for a long time."

All but three of the 53 children were born into the Ecclesia group, which has lived communally for the past eight years, primarily in a converted bakery in South-Central Los Angeles. The group has spent time in Oregon for the past three years.

Although it began in the mid-1970s as a religious organization--then called the Watts Christian Center--the group later changed its focus to athletics, with Broussard promoting his Ecclesia Plan of rigorous athletic workouts and strict discipline for the children.

Interviews with authorities who have come to know the youngsters suggest that the children have been shaped heavily by their past.

The children have visited with their parents, but they would rather see Broussard, who has not been permitted to visit them.

"Their concern for the center and the center's leader outweighs their concern for their parents," said case worker Tim Seidle.

'She Said No'

One Los Angeles parent who quit the group two years ago, Dennis Culmer, said he visited one of his children in Oregon and asked her if she wanted to come home. "She said no," Culmer said. "She wanted to be with the rest of the kids and Big El."

The children remain very regimented. The morning after they arrived, the boys startled the staff when they awakened on their own by 6 a.m., made their beds, lined up in order of height to use the bathroom and then returned to their rooms to await directions. Now, a month later, the lineups are still "fairly automatic," Seidle said.

The children were abnormally quiet and compliant when they were first taken into custody. Curt Feisel, program director at the girls' school, recalled that when a staff member mentioned in passing that a room was cluttered, one child immediately began cleaning it up.

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