Bad memories for members of Twelve Tribes: Group reaches out after incident involving girl

Plymouth, USA - In June 1984, Vermont State Police wearing bulletproof vests raided a Twelve Tribes religious community and seized 112 children who authorities suspected of being physically abused.

But during court detention hearings, state prosecutors failed to provide evidence of abuse and a judge returned the children to their parents.

Local residents got a chance last night to gain some understanding about the raid through a video that depicted the roundup of children who were part of the Northeast Kingdom Community Church in Island Pond, Vt. The 2004 documentary included interviews with the children as adults today and others critical of what happened 21 years ago.

The public meeting organized by local Twelve Tribes members was in response to a recent assault on one of its members, a 14-year-old girl, who was allegedly punched by a Plymouth woman and told she was ‘‘a disgrace to God.''

Police arrested the woman and charged her in the attack.

About a dozen people showed up at the former Stevens the Florist shop on Main Street to hear Twelve Tribes members who believe they have been persecuted in the past because of a misunderstanding about their religious beliefs. They say they are not a cult.

The group recently bought the downtown storefront and plan to convert it into a cafe. They own the Common Sense Wholesome Food Market next door.

‘‘I see it as a culture where people are trying to find their identification with their environment and beliefs,'' said Stephan Wehner of Plymouth.

Wehner took his wife and 10-year-old daughter to watch the documentary. ‘‘We enjoy their friendship,'' Wehner said. ‘‘It's based on honesty.''

Wehner, who is familiar with Twelve Tribes members, said he had offered a ride to the teen just before she was assaulted.

He said she rejected his offer and began walking home, which was about a mile away.

Roger Randall of Plymouth, who shops at the Common Sense store, said he was eager to hear more about the Island Pond raid.

Randall said he was glad to hear that townspeople had condemned the attack on the girl.

‘‘It gives me encouragement about the good there is in society,'' Randall said. ‘‘These people give up a lot to live the way they do and they are very happy.''

The Twelve Tribes community in Plymouth is one of about 35 across the country and 50 worldwide.

Members live communally, home-school their children and work at businesses owned by the group. They renounce all possessions, and finances are managed by community leaders. Physical discipline of children is promoted as a sign of love, a practice that has been the source of controversy.

Kevin Gadsby, the group's Plymouth coordinator, said they have received an outpouring of support from those stopping in at their Common Sense store since the attack on the girl, who was not seriously injured.

‘‘People apologize for the town of Plymouth and say it's just an isolated innocent,'' Gadsby said.

He said many get the wrong idea about Twelve Tribes from reading ‘‘fabricated lies'' on the Internet.

‘‘This information is coming from people who are grossly misrepresenting our lives,'' he said. ‘‘We want to respond. We don't have anything to hide. We are thankful for those who want to understand who we are. If you want to know about us, just ask our neighbors.''