New Refuge for Walkaways
Group Home Offers Healing, Perspective The Middleboro Gazette

February 12, 2004 Cindy Dow

Lakeville - The small white sign at 18 Crooked Lane is all that indicates the purpose of the building overlooking hay fields across the quiet rural street. Even the white sign says little to explain what Meadow Haven means to the people who go there to regain their own identities.

Meadow Haven is a quiet retreat for former members of high control groups, or "cults." The facility developed out of Robert and Judy Pardon's passion to help some of the people they saw coming out of the groups that they researched through their work with the New England Institute of Religious Research (NEIRR). Mr. Pardon, who has a Masters Degree in Ethics and a Masters of Divinity, was the former pastor of the Church of the Green in Middleboro. Mrs. Pardon is a former school teacher who has a Masters Degree in counseling. In 1991 they founded NEIRR, and purchased the Meadow View Retirement Home in 1999 as a place to begin a residential treatment program to help cult members trying to find healing.

Meadow Haven is the only long-term rehabilitation facility of its kind in the world, the Pardons said.

"Nobody has ever done this before," Mrs. Pardon said. "We'd been doing it in sort of a sideways fashion, not with a full-fledged program, but basically helping people to get back on their feet. So this was the very first time that we actually had laid out a program and said this is what we think people need to go through to be on the path to healing. We didn't want to create a communal living style, because a lot of these people came out of communal groups, and yet we had to because they're living together. We wanted to change the dynamics so they wouldn't feel controlled." Mr. Pardon said the facility is not like a drug rehabilitation center, or like programs for people with mental health issues or criminal backgrounds.

"Since there is nothing like this in the world, we're creating this out of whole cloth," Mr Pardon said.

Current residents include a Russian who had been recruited by the Unification Church, and a participant from Mongolia. They are working with families from France and Australia, as well as families from within the states. Because of their work with former sect members, the Pardons also run seminars for the Department of Social Services twice a year, helping case workers to recognize and deal with families who have been involved with cults. They also work with law enforcement agencies and lawyers to provide information to the legal system regarding control groups.

Although the Meadow Haven building is large enough to fit 20 residents, the Pardons said the program can only take on about eight people.

"It's very labor intensive. It's a lot of hard work helping individuals put their lives back together again," Mr. Pardon said.

The upper floor consists of six bedrooms, a large living room, a small kitchen area, and an exercise room. A licensed trainer comes in on a weekly basis to assist residents with exercise equipment. The ground level hosts a larger kitchen, laundry room, counseling offices, and a large sitting room. There are resident counselors on site 24-hours a day.

"You need to have someone on site all the time. That's more if somebody sets off the fire alarms than anything else," Mr. Pardon said.

Mrs. Pardon explained that the residents are not mentally ill, nor do they have drug or alcohol abuse problems, and all have had background checks. Many of the residents work part time, although they are discouraged from working full-time because that would distract from the counseling they need to work through.

The program began slowly, taking just two residents in when it opened in August of 2002. Though the average stay is estimated at six to eight months, the Pardons tell people "we don't want you to stay here longer than you have to, nor leave a day sooner than you should." Two people have completed the program, and another three are preparing to leave within the next couple of months.

Statistics suggest that 300,000 people join abusive groups every day, while another 300,000 people leave them every day. Mr. Pardon acknowledged that not all of those people would need a facility such as Meadow Haven, although he would recommend counseling for anyone who has been a part of a high control group.

"There are many people that don't get any help, because they don't know where to get it, and they come out with large families and they have to go to get a job, and so unfortunately they don't take the time. It comes back to hurt them later on," Mrs. Pardon said.

Some of the skills that the residents learn at Meadow Haven include making choices and establishing boundaries. The Pardons explained that many of the residents are not used to being allowed to make choices, or even deciding anything for themselves because of the control the group has had over them.

"What happens when you get involved with a group is they destroy all your boundaries," Mr. Pardon said. "One group put it this way: 'when we're through with you, you'll be like a zero with the rim rubbed out.' No boundaries. So your individuality, your ability to make choices, your integrity is completely eliminated here. So, you stay in that kind of an environment for a period of time, you come out and all of a sudden you're facing huge issues. How do I make choices? How do I know what's appropriate in the sense of personal interactions. The ability to trust is greatly, greatly impacted.

"Many folks who come out of this, who can't afford the time to come to a facility like this, they live lives of quiet desperation. Because this stuff does not go away, it just goes underground and it stays there," Mr. Pardon said.

People who are most susceptible to getting involved with a cult are middle to upper-middle class, college educated, idealistic people with a Judeo-Christian background. Mr. Pardon said susceptibility has nothing to do with family background or intelligence.

"These groups are not a con. They don't give you what you think you're going to get, so in that sense they're a con, but they're not out to con people. They believe that what they're telling you is true," said Mrs. Pardon.

Mrs. Pardon explained that in every single one of these groups, members are taught that obedience is the most important thing, and that reasoning and thinking for oneself is evil.

"Groups all operate the same way. I don't care if you're talking about the Branch Davidians, Karen's group, Boston Church of Christ, Jehovah's Witnesses; they all operate the same way. It's just a different set of clothes, same process goes on. Once you understand the process, you can describe it to someone that's come out of the group and they go 'that's exactly what we went through,' " Mr. Pardon said..

Meadow Haven is a religious non-profit, tax-exempt organization, funded by a grant, as well as donations from people who believe in what the organization is doing. Each resident is required to contribute towards the $1700 per month charge for the services, room and board, even if it is as little as $10 per week. The Pardons believe that even the small financial responsibility contributes toward the residents' feelings of ownership toward their own healing.

The program at Meadow Haven is individualized for each resident, but primarily consists of three parts. The first step is to rest and develop a sense of safety. Some psychological testing is done. The resident begins to work on self-esteem, which is largely destroyed while in a cult, the Pardons said.

The Pardons are committed Christians. They do not, however, try to persuade residents to simply transfer their beliefs to the Pardons' beliefs.

"We believe that God's truth should be able to stand. If it's true, and you want to pursue this, then the word of God is going to be able to stand on its own. You don't need to have me convince you of it," Mr. Pardon said.

After residents have developed a sense of security, they begin to deal with what happened to them, the things they did while in the cult, and how such groups operate. They are helped to mourn over the things that happened, and then to move on so that they will be able to go on with life. Mr. Pardon said the hardest thing for many former members of destructive groups is to face and work through the spiritual issues and confused theology they are left with.

The final stage of the program includes focusing on the future, such as what they will do for a job and where they will live. The focus is on helping them to answer questions, for themselves as well as those who will ask them, about why they became involved with a cult.

"They've got to be able to give an answer that makes sense. It might not be accepted, but it's got to make sense, because otherwise they lead lives of quiet desperation," Mr. Pardon said. "There's a lot of shame that's associated with this, and we don't want them to be operating under that environment. We tell them there's going to be people that will reject you out of hand, but you've got to be able to have an answer. But more importantly, in your quiet moments, when nobody else is around and it's just you and your thoughts, you've got to be able to have an answer for yourself."