The Gentle People
Courts have permitted the Amish to live outside the law. But in some places, Amish women are sexually assaulted with no recourse
BY: Nadya Labi
Anna tried to run away. But when her parents figured out where she was and called the woman who was sheltering her, Anna was sent home. Fannie began locking Anna in her room. The family moved to Tionesta, Pa., where Fannie tried to get her daughter declared mentally ill. She took Anna to a doctor who found that Anna's eardrum had collapsed from blows to her head and seemed doubtful that the damage had been caused by buggy accidents as he'd been told. Fannie next tried a massage therapist, Barbara Burke. Noticing scars on Anna's legs, Burke called Children and Youth Services in Clarion County. On a later visit, Burke massaged Anna's father while CYS secretly interviewed Anna in the basement. The agency later visited Anna at her home. But it didn't take her into protective custody. (CYS declined to comment.)
When Fannie found out about the CYS visit, she and Anna went with 13 other kids to the home of John Yoder, an Amish dentist who lived an hour and a half away in the town of Punxsutawney. Yoder's living room had a recliner with a tin pan and some needles next to it. Anna watched as the other kids each had one or two bad teeth pulled. When it was her turn, Yoder shot some novocaine into her upper gum. She shook her head and told him that two of her lower teeth had cavities. He shot the lower gum, and asked Fannie which teeth should go. Anna's mother answered, "Take them all," and Yoder pulled-along the upper gum, along the lower gum, until every tooth was gone. "After he had pulled the last tooth," Anna remembered, "my mom looked at me and said, 'I guess you won't be talking anymore.' "
Anna bled for three days. Her family ignored her, except to periodically hand her a drink. She couldn't talk, but that didn't matter, because Anna had nothing left to say. At church, she looked away when other kids pointed at her mouth. Fannie Slabaugh told me that Anna had asked for her teeth to be pulled. But the detective who investigated the case, Trooper Michael Pisarchic, said that the other kids who went with Anna to see Yoder said that Anna was being punished. Meanwhile, CYS was continuing to investigate. A court date was set for the spring of 2002. The bishop in Anna's district, Moses Shettler, called Barbara Burke and asked her to testify that Anna had mental problems. Burke refused. On the Friday before Anna was scheduled to appear in court, soon after her teeth had been pulled, Shettler and a group of elders visited Anna's parents. Anna said her parents threatened two days later to take her out to the woodpile, or worse, unless she told her lawyer that she took back her accusations against her brothers. Stripped of faith in the state to protect her, Anna did as she was told.
Neither Anna's parents nor John Yoder were ever charged with abuse. The judge in Anna's case allowed the younger brother to remain under Amish supervision as long as he had no contact with Anna. But Anna said he returned home on the day of the hearing. "They don't believe it's any of our business," said Roberts, Anna's Ohio social worker, of the Amish attitude toward child abuse investigations. But it's the job of social workers, police, and prosecutors to make child abuse their business. The state's duty to push past the barriers thrown up by parents and the community can't hinge on the religion they practice. Its role becomes more essential, not less, when adults wall off children from the outside world.
While the authorities idled, Anna was being watched constantly. One of her chores was taking the family's horses out to pasture, within view of the house. On a morning in June when the animals seemed frisky, Anna clapped her hands. The horses scattered and she pretended to chase them, cutting across the field to a mailbox, where she dropped off a letter she'd written to Burke. "Are you still willing to help, or am I not welcome?" she wrote. "I need to get out of here." She asked Burke to put a message in a plastic bottle for her and leave it in a ditch by the mailbox. Two days later, Anna spooked the horses again, and a message was waiting. "Our arms are open to you and so are our doors," Burke promised.
Anna burned the note with a lighter and went home. It was her turn to make supper. She lit the stove, began heating water, and sat down to write a letter to her family. The sun was falling when she finished. Anna climbed out of the kitchen window and ran.
When Mary Byler left home, she threw her white cap onto Sam Mast's driveway and screeched off in the car of a woman who took her in. In the two years since, Mary has driven by her mother's house a few times in a black Grand Prix. "If Mary wants to get away," Sally asked Eli's lawyer, Greg Lunde, "why does she keep coming back?"
When I caught up with Mary, six months after she left the Amish, she insisted that her mother and her brothers were dead to her. But in the kitchen of the spotless trailer she rents next to Wisconsin's La Crosse River, she couldn't stop talking about them. Cracking eggs into a mixing bowl to make sugar cookies-never mind that it was after midnight-she dwelt on how much Johnny, Eli, and David loved her baking.
Though Mary can't quite leave her family behind, she ran from the church and didn't look back. She pierced her ears last March, earned a GED in April, and got a driver's license in May. A friend bought her the Grand Prix, and Mary paid him back on the $8-an-hour salary she earns cleaning a hospital in La Crosse.
Mary took me out to her car to play a Loretta Lynn cassette. Dressed in shorts and a tight pink T-shirt with a white angel on the front, she shifted a Doral cigarette from her right hand to her left so that she could jab more effectively at the seek button on the car stereo. She was looking for one song: "Hey, Loretta." When it started, Mary jerked her head to the beat. "Goodbye tub and clothesline, goodbye pots an' pans," she belted out, flinging her hair and pounding her right leg. Her nails painted a matching pink and a silver necklace hanging from her neck, Mary didn't care how many Ordnung rules she was breaking. She was drunk on freedom.