Lawsuit settled over widespread abuse of former students at shuttered West Virginia boarding school

Aug 23, 2023, 1:17 PM

FILE - Harrison Sheriff's Sgt. Rob Waybright and Lt. Pat McCarty, work the scene at Miracle Meadows...

FILE - Harrison Sheriff's Sgt. Rob Waybright and Lt. Pat McCarty, work the scene at Miracle Meadows School on Aug. 14, 2014, in Salem, W.Va. On Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, attorneys announced that a second lawsuit that alleged widespread sexual, physical and mental abuse at a now-closed West Virginia boarding school for troubled youths has been settled for about $50 million. (Matt Harvey/The Exponent via AP, File)

(Matt Harvey/The Exponent via AP, File)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A second lawsuit that alleged widespread sexual, physical and mental abuse at a now-closed West Virginia boarding school for troubled youths has been settled for about $50 million.

Attorneys for 32 plaintiffs described what happened to children over decades at the former Miracle Meadows School in Salem as gruesome and unfathomable.

“No one would believe it in a movie,” Jesse Forbes, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

The lawsuit had named the school’s co-founder and its operating entities. Among the abuse alleged by the former students, who are now adults, included being chained and shackled to beds, being kept in tiny isolation rooms for long periods, routine beatings, sexual assault, starvation, and being forced to perform manual labor. The children at times were not given toilet paper, requiring them to remain in their own filth or use their clothing to clean themselves.

“This institution actually had a handcuffing policy and issued handcuffs to the staff members for kids as young as 6 years old,” Forbes said.

An earlier lawsuit filed on behalf of 29 students at the school was settled in 2020 for $52 million. After the first settlement, the Legislature changed a law increasing the statute of limitations for abuse claims to age 36, prompting the second lawsuit, Forbes said.

The latest settlement reached this month will be paid out by insurance carriers, Forbes said. Some other claims remain pending.

Attorney Guy D’Andrea said the latest lawsuit included allegations that some children ages 7 to 12 contracted sexually transmitted diseases from staff members.

“We actually had two clients who got pregnant by a staff member and were forced to have abortions,” D’Andrea said. “We thought it couldn’t get any worse for these children. For some of them, it was.”

Miracle Meadows was founded in 1988 and operated as a ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. According to the lawsuit, the school was closed in 2014 after a student drank a cleaning product and was rushed to a hospital where she begged the medical staff for help, prompting authorities to investigate the claims. The school’s state-recognized education status was revoked in August 2014.

Susan Gayle Clark, the school’s co-founder, was sentenced in 2016 to six months in jail and five years on probation after pleading guilty to child neglect charges.

In the five years leading up to the school’s closing, Miracle Meadows had been named in more than a dozen complaints of abuse and mistreatment. Such complaints to the state are typically forwarded to the local prosecutor.

But at the time, Harrison County assistant prosecutor Patricia Dettori said substantiating the complaints over the years had been difficult, in part because many students were from out of state. The children either were taken out of school or recanted the allegations, while many of the school staff members were from other countries on religious work visas and would abruptly leave if accused of wrongdoing, she said.

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Lawsuit settled over widespread abuse of former students at shuttered West Virginia boarding school