In a hearing Thursday in Montgomery County Chancery Court, Chancellor Percy Lynchard, Jr. denied a permanent injunction against Jimmy and Donna Prather, founders of Hope Christian Home and Academy in Duck Hill that would forbid the future placement of girls into their care at the Duck Hill facility.
The state alleged that the facility's founders, Jimmy and Donna Prather, were guilty of emotional abuse and neglect in their care of the girls living at the home. However, Lynchard denied the permanent injunction based on lack of evidence.
"The state has failed to show abuse and neglect," Lynchard said in his ruling. "I do not find that [Jimmy and Donna Prather's] behavior proves abuse and neglect."
According to the defense, the state's case hinged on statements given by the home's residents to Department of Human Services' [DHS] social workers during the investigation. In keeping with the state's hearsay rules, statements from the residents included in the DHS report were ruled inadmissible in Thursday's court proceedings. None of the home's former residents testified in the proceedings.
In addition, according to court records, four of the girls recanted those statements in sworn depositions.
The request for a permanent injunction was filed by Ellen O'Neal, special assistant attorney general, for the State of Mississippi by and through the Mississippi State Department of Health after a June 28 emergency hearing in Montgomery County Youth Court in which 18 girls living at the home, located on Sweatman Road in Duck Hill, were removed and placed in the temporary custody of the Mississippi Department of Health. According to court documents, the investigation began after police received a 911 telephone call alleging abuse at the home.
The home was allowed to re-open last fall following a preliminary hearing, according to news reports.
In Thursday's hearing, the state called two witnesses, a former employee of the home and a DHS social worker.
Former employee Desni Kwak testified that in her four months of employment at Hope Christian Home and Academy, she witnessed "things at the house that bothered her," and she began keeping a journal "as a way to vent."
Kwak testified that she witnessed an incident involving a 14-year-old girl being "grabbed by her ponytail and dragged through two rooms" by Donna Prather to receive licks for urinating on the living room sofa.
She went on to testify that the same girl was made to remove her skirt and slip in a storage closet to allow Donna Prather to verify if her underwear was wet after another incident.
Kwak also testified that Donna Prather called a seven-year-old resident a "stinking little heifer," after the child did not complete a school assignment as instructed. Kwak said the girl was punished by being paddled with a wooden paddle and "hand licks with a flexi ruler."
Kwak testified that the girls at the home all suffered from Reactive Attachment Disorder, a condition in which children, usually the victims of neglect, do not form healthy attachments with their caregivers.
During her testimony, Kwak said "some of the girls got a hold of a phone and called 911, and said they were being abused." She went on to say the girls were taken from the home by DHS the next day.
During cross examination, Kwak testified that she "never saw anything that left marks."
When asked by defense counsel Helen Kelly if she believed what she had witnessed constituted emotional abuse, Kwak said she felt the name calling and yelling was emotional abuse - especially belittling someone in front of their peers.
"If I was treated like that I know I would feel abused," Kwak said. "Screaming and yelling was very common by Mrs. Prather."
During cross examination, it was revealed by Kelly that four of the girls at the home gave depositions recanting their allegations of abuse. Kelly asked Kwak if she based her testimony and what she wrote in her journal on the stories told by the girls. Kwak said her testimony was made up of incidents she personally witnessed.
Sharonda Weathersby, a social worker with the Division of Child and Family Services in Montgomery County, testified that during the investigation of the home, there were findings that "substantiated" emotional abuse and neglect.
Weathersby testified that her conclusion was largely based on the accounts of the girls in the home, accounts found in the investigation report.
Sustaining a motion by the defense, Lynchard redacted hearsay items from Weathersby's investigation report before it was admitted into evidence.
Weathersby testified that when Jimmy Prather was interviewed by court personnel, he stated that no children were on medication at Hope Christian Home and Academy, and if they were taking medication prior to coming to the school, they were taken off the medication when they got there. She testified that the Prathers did not conduct any follow up with the prescribing doctors.
Weathersby, who compiled the investigative report from DHS, testified as to what she witnessed Jimmy Prather state in Montgomery County Youth Court.
"[Jimmy Prather] said Mrs. Prather used her hands to slap the girls in the face and pull their hair to get their attention," Weathersby testified. "Mr. Prather stated that they lay their hands on the girls' hands in attempt to keep the girls' hands out of the way while the girls are laying across the bed in the Prathers' room to receive the paddling."
During cross examination, Kelly asked Weathersby about the depositions of four of the girls who recanted their allegations of abuse. Weathersby said she had no knowledge of the depositions.
Kelly asked Weathersby if anyone at DHS had any follow up conversations with the girls after they were taken from the home, and Weathersby said she spoke to some of the girls regarding another matter.
"Are you aware that depositions were taken from four of the girls that these girls have recanted and that they made up all of these stories and it was all a lie?" Kelly asked Weathersby.
Weathersby responded, "There were other girls that I talked to….We rely on the statements of the children, and most of their statements were similar."
She explained that she did rely on the testimony of every girl living at Hope Christian Home and Academy when determining emotional abuse and neglect in the home. She said she also weighed the testimony of Kwak and the Prathers as well in determining whether emotional abuse and neglect was substantiated at Hope Christian Home and Academy.
After the state rested, the defense motioned the court to deny the injunction based on lack of evidence. The defense called no witnesses to testify.
Following a break for lunch, Lynchard ruled in favor of the defense and denied the injunction, to the applause of the many Prather supporters in the courtroom.
Marsha Engle contributed to this story.