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Lawsuit claims abuse, threats at church farm in Pennsylvania

HARRISBURG (AP) - A federal lawsuit filed this month claims boys and young men at a church-related farm business in Pennsylvania were subjected to forced labor and punishment that included dragging chains and breaking up rocks with a hammer.

The lawsuit by two former residents of Liberty Ridge, an 80-acre farm in Juniata County near the state’s geographic center, said the two plaintiffs were held there in violation of federal laws against human trafficking and forced into long hours of grueling work.

The residents, identified by their initials, now live in New Jersey and Missouri. In Pennsylvania federal court on Nov. 17, they sued the Ephrata-based Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church and Related Areas; the church’s nonprofit corporation that oversees Liberty Ridge, the Mennonite Messianic Mission; and Liberty Ridge Farm in McAlisterville and its owner.

The defendants do not have legal representation listed in the online case docket. A call to a number for Liberty Ridge listed in a Mennonite directory rang and then was disconnected. A woman answered the phone at a number listed as a contact for the church but then hung up.

Liberty Ridge was set up in Juniata County in 2011 for boys and young adult men the church considered troubled and to have spiritual, emotional and social needs as well as behavioral problems. The plaintiffs say the farm raises chicken, beef and pork; builds wooden pallets and fiberglass fence gates; and does interstate trucking.

The residents or their families had to pay around $2,300 a month and their labor - often six long days a week - is unpaid, the lawsuit states.

Those deemed to have acted “against the Bible” or otherwise broken the farm’s rules were forced to endure what were called “consequences,” among them being limited to rice and beans and water, digging up tree stumps by hand and dragging chains over their shoulder, according to the lawsuit. The staff used zip ties to restrain residents and at times dragged residents as punishment, the plaintiffs claim. The residents allegedly were told they would be thrown out of the church and kept from their families if they spoke of leaving the farm.

“I can only tell you that law enforcement is aware of the allegations and taking the appropriate steps,” Juniata County District Attorney Cory J. Snook said in an email late Tuesday, declining further comment.