State Welfare Officials Decline To Release Information On Petal Girls Home

Even with a judge's approval, state officials still refuse to release information about allegations of abuse at a girls home in Petal where 38 girls were removed a week ago.

Forrest County Youth Court Judge Michael McPhail said Monday that state officials could release information about the Bethel Academy for Girls in Petal.

Mississippi Department of Human Services spokesman Rick Whitlow said DHS had received a copy of McPhail's order but declined to release any information on the advice of attorneys because of possible lawsuits.

"I am very frustrated and disappointed with the state of Mississippi, in particular the Department of Human Services,'' said Matthew Brown of Dallas.

Brown is the father of a 13-year-old girl at Bethel and signed a petition seeking a meeting with McPhail.

"We expected a higher level of professionalism than what we received,'' Brown said. "We feel like we have been shoved aside. It was like a huge slap in the face.''

DHS and other law enforcement agencies conducted interviews with the girls May 19 after taking them from the home and later took them to Camp Shelby where they were held until they could be reunited with their parents.

Herman Fountain Jr., the director of the academy, said he has a state license to operate the school and has denied allegations of abuse. Forrest County District Attorney Jon Mark Weathers said Monday he knew of no criminal charges that have been brought against Fountain or any other Bethel employee.

The Hattiesburg American reported Tuesday that it plans to file a request with DHS under the states Open Records Act to obtain the information.

McPhail's order provided that "the investigation information from agency or law enforcement records with regard to the minor children in these cases may be disclosed to the news media and to the parents or legal representatives of the child involved in these investigations.''

Parent David Bakker of Chicago said he joined Brown and Jason and Lori Silo of Tacoma, Wash., in hiring the lawyer and filing the petition to see McPhail. He said the judge had agreed to see them next week.

All the 38 girls removed by DHS live outside of Mississippi, Fountain said. He said the academy is still open.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)