Opinion — Dean Pineles: On the 40th anniversary of the raid at Island Pond, the fundamental dilemma lingers (2024)

This commentary is by Dean Pineles. He served as a Vermont district judge from 1984-2005, and then worked internationally as a judicial adviser and criminal judge for most of the next decade. He is author of “A Judge’s Odyssey: From Vermont to Russia, Kazakhstan and Georgia, then on to War Crimes and Organ trafficking in Kosovo”

At dawn on June 22, 1984, 90 police officers and around 50 social workers, plus medical personnel and numerous state officials, descended upon the reclusive and secretive Northeast Kingdom Community Church in Island Pond, Vermont, initiating one of the most notorious events in state history.

The NKCC consisted of adults and children who moved to Island Pond in the late 1970s from Tennessee. Adults did not register births and deaths, did not send their children to school, and allegedly disciplined their children harshly and repeatedly with wooden rods, causing welts, bruises and even open wounds, as dictated by their strict interpretation of the Bible.

The intervention’s goal was to place all the children into emergency state custody and have them physically examined since the community’s elders repeatedly refused to cooperate with the state.

Thus, a clash between two valued rights: the right of children to be safe, and the right to freely exercise religion. The situation ultimately presented an extremely difficult decision for Republican Gov. Richard Snelling: Should the state intervene with a show of strength after all less-intrusive measures had been exhausted?

At the time, I was the governor’s legal counsel, and his liaison with the attorney general’s office, state police, human services, child protection, health and social services, all of which were involved.

Abuse allegations surfaced in 1982 and into 1983, mostly from defectors. Juvenile court proceedings in Caledonia County proved unsuccessful because the children could never be located within the secretive community.

In September 1983, an extensive state investigation identified 18 abused children. For example, a witness observed a two-year-old girl being beaten with a rod by her parents and two others, resulting in welts and bruises on her buttocks, back and legs. Other examples were similar, but again the children couldn’t be located.

In October 1983, an evaluation by a respected Burlington psychologist retained by the Office of Child Protection concluded that all of the children residing in the Island Pond community could be considered at risk for physical and emotional abuse.

Based on this stark conclusion, plans for an intervention were then developed, including the formation of an operational team. But Gov. Snelling insisted on voluntary compliance, so over the ensuing months there were repeated personal contacts with church elders, all without success.

On Feb. 1, 1984, an evaluation of a 4-year-old girl who had been relocated to Florida concluded that the child had been chronically and repeatedly abused.

There was also an unsuccessful attempt to obtain voluntary examinations by a Maine physician who had a relationship with the NKCC.

On February 20, another evaluation commissioned by the Health Department concluded that there were sufficient grounds to consider a screen of all children in the group, although they urged a cooperative approach. More unsuccessful efforts to gain cooperation were then undertaken well into the spring of 1984.

In early June, there was another failed court proceeding in Caledonia County to obtain the identities of certain children.

On June 9, the Orleans County state’s attorney, acting on his own legal authority, obtained a judicial warrant to take all the children into custody. But Snelling refused to execute the warrant, insisting that it was his decision to make, and only through the Attorney General’s Office.

Shortly thereafter, reliable information disclosed a secret plan to relocate the children away from Island Pond. Upon the urgent and unanimous recommendation of the involved state officials, Snelling made the agonizing decision to seek the warrant, which was issued by Judge Joseph Wolchik on June 21.

Early next morning, the operational team moved in, and state troopers knocked on the doors of twenty Church residences and removed no fewer than 112 children.

When they were delivered by buses to Newport for medical and social checkups, and for court proceedings, a different judge, Frank Mahady, had been handpicked by the chief administrative judge, Thomas Hayes, a former Democratic lieutenant governor and political foe of Snelling’s, to replace Judge Wolchik.

It was a day of chaos and high anxiety in Newport. And case by case, Mahady refused to order emergency detention for any of the children, claiming the evidence did not constitute an emergency, and that Wolchik’s warrant was unconstitutionally broad.

The children were never examined, and were released back to their parents that day.

The event created a media firestorm, both locally and nationally, and there were headlines, front-page stories and photographs, in papers such as the Boston Herald, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Burlington Free Press, the Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

Many commentators supported the intervention, but many vehemently opposed it. State officials argued vigorously that the constitutional rights of small children and not those of religious extremists were of utmost importance.

Gov. Snelling defended the action, but conceded it was the most difficult decision in his public life. Former Gov. Howard Dean, then a state representative, also voiced strong support.

The debate continued throughout the summer of 1984. The appointment of Mahady proved highly controversial. Many believed Wolchik would have granted emergency detention had it not been for the intrusion of the administrative judge.

There was ongoing litigation in juvenile court on a non-emergency basis to address the underlying allegations of abuse, and Judge Mahady dismissed all the cases in early August. The state did not appeal, ending legal proceedings, and there was no legislative investigation which some had recommended.

The controversy slowly died down, and despite ongoing efforts by child protection officials, the children were never examined.

The fundamental dilemma lingers: What was the proper response? If a child had been seriously injured or died from a beating, the state would have been severely criticized for taking no action, just as it was taken to task by many for pursuing the intervention. It was a classic situation of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” and remains so today.

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Opinion — Dean Pineles: On the 40th anniversary of the raid at Island Pond, the fundamental dilemma lingers (2024)
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