Opinions differ about closed boys' home

By Alexandria Randolph

Burnet Bulletin

Following the investigation of a religious boys’ home in Bertram, statements of personal experiences with the home have been mixed.

Mandy Dillinger of Cosseta, Georgia, said her 14-year-old stepson, Jacob, was placed in Joshua Home in Pineville, Missouri by his biological mother after the family lost his father last year.

Jacob, who has Attention Deficit Disorder, had shown resistance to completing class work and had lied about items missing in his mother’s house, she told Dillinger. His mother determined that sending Jacob to a home for troubled boys was the best option, a choice that Dillinger disagreed with.

“He had just lost his father. He needed time to mourn,” she said. “You have to give him a chance to deal with it.”

Dillinger became concerned about her stepson after she researched the history of Joshua Home and the allegations of abuse and child labor against the facility that led to a raid by the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Department and Robertsdale Police in Robertsdale, Alabama.

“I was the one that called the sheriff’s office in McDonald County to do a child welfare check,” Dillinger said. “I love the child and I was concerned for the child.”

After she requested the welfare check, police officers told Dillinger they questioned Jacob and members of staff and found nothing amiss. But soon afterward, Dillinger was told by Jacob’s mother that Gary Wiggins, the owner of Joshua Home, said to stop calling police because it was “upsetting all the kids,” Dillinger said.

“Every time the police went up there, Wiggins told [Jacob’s mother] she needed to make it stop,” Dillinger said. “[Jacob] said we’d ‘destroyed his life’ by getting things checked out … He was only there for four months and now he hates me.”

Jacob’s great aunt was in communication with Dillinger while he was at Joshua Home. The two women shared concerns about the facility’s policies on communication between the boys and their families, Dillinger said.

“She told me they do listen in on calls; they do read emails going both ways,” she said. “That’s extremely controlling and cult-like. They isolated the children. It’s the perfect environment to abuse a child.”

According to Dillinger, boys at the home were not permitted to receive any calls from any family members within the first 30 days of their stay. And even after two months, all communication was monitored.

“She [Jacob’s aunt] said they told her, ‘Don’t talk about going home,’ and I said, ‘Why?’” Dillinger said. “They have to sign up for one year, and we [families] could only visit after four months.”

In May, Jacob’s mother cut Dillinger off from communication about Jacob, which was around the same time that Joshua Home moved to Bertram, taking Jacob with it.

“The kid that went in was happy-go-lucky and would chat your ear off,” Dillinger said. However, when Jacob left the facility in June, “it was like a shell of who he was. A lot of the stuff he said sounded repeated.”

Dillinger was cut off from communication with Jacob after he was removed from the home, she said, regardless of the fact that she won custody of him within the state of Georgia in July. The custody case has now been referred to the U.S. Supreme Court since the issue crosses state lines, she said.

“We may not have him with us, but we still won because he’s out of the [Joshua] Home. My greatest fear is that his mother will ship him off again,” she said.

Opposing viewpoint

While Dillinger fears her stepson may have suffered abuse at the home, Burnet resident and former Joshua Home resident Dylan Eppley said his treatment at the facility was nothing but appropriate.

Eppley left the Joshua Home Bertram facility in June after feeling he had gotten everything he needed from the program.

“The program is to get kids on the right path. I didn’t feel like I needed to be there,” he said.

According to Eppley, many boys at the home have lied about their treatment there.

“You can’t trust the kids either, because they are there for lying, stealing, cheating and whatever,” he said.

Eppley has been to three religiously affiliated boys homes in his teenage years, including a home in South Carolina, which shut down after the founder died of a long-term illness. He stayed at a second in Panama City, Florida, but left due to his behavioral issues, he said.

But his stay at Joshua Home in Bertram “was good for the most part.”

Regarding child labor, Eppley said Wiggins told parents the goal was to teach parents how to work with their hands.

“We had a moving business and a lawn business,” he said.

Eppley said boys at the home were not forced to work. In fact, they were only allowed to join work crews off the facility grounds if they had good behavior, he said.

“I considered it a reward to be able to go. He was showing us trust,” Eppley said. “It wasn’t hard work, some of the boys were just lazy. They aren’t used to getting their hands dirty and working.”

While Eppley stayed at the Blessed Hope Boys Home in Robertsdale, Wiggins did use corporal punishment in cases of misbehavior, he said.

“While we were there, he was our father figure. He had parents sign a waiver to allow corporal punishment. I had no problem with it,” Eppley said.

When Blessed Hope Boys Home became Joshua Home and transplanted to Bertram, Eppley said some of the punishment policies may have changed.

“In June, [in Bertram] it was not a bad place. He treated us no differently from one of his own children … While I was there, he [Wiggins] never swatted kids or anything. He said he was done with that because of what happened in Alabama,” Eppley said, referring to the raid in Robertsdale.

But Wiggins had otherwise to deal with misbehavior, Eppley said.

“What he did while I was there was make them stand on a wall. After a day or two they could get off,” he said. “They could get off in a couple hours if they were good enough, but they don’t obey when they’re on the wall because they don’t want to be on the wall. A lot of them were really childish, so they got treated like children.”

Eppley even denounced statements made by Rodney Pinkston, quoted in an earlier report by The Highlander, on the grounds that Pinkston had an ulterior motive for claims he made about Wiggins’ maltreatment of the boys.

“While I was in Alabama, there was one staff member, [Rodney Pinkston]. He was going to help steal one of the vans. Some of the kids were in on it,” Eppley said.

For the record, Pinkston has not been charged with planning or committing any crime, nor have authorities indicated he is under investigation.

For Eppley, a stay at the home put him on the right path, he said. He now lives permanently in Burnet County.

“I have my own lawn business now with a friend. It’s called Gio’s Lawn Services,” he said. “Soon we’ll start our own moving business.”

According to Eppley, many religiously affiliated boys’ home come under fire by false allegations of poor treatment of the children.

“This happens to the best places,” he said, adding that usually claims of maltreatment originate with boys who didn’t respond well to behavioral correction. “Boys just don’t want to do what they need to do.”

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