Farm Housing Mennonite Boys Engaged in Human Trafficking, Lawsuit Says

In a federal lawsuit against the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church, two plaintiffs said they were deprived of food and restrained with zip ties at a forced-labor farm.,

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Two men filed a federal lawsuit this month against the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church, saying that they were victims of a human trafficking scheme while they lived at a forced-labor farm for troubled boys run by a church member.

The lawsuit said that the men, who were 14 and 18 when they first joined the farm, worked six days a week with no pay, and that they were physically and mentally abused when they stayed at Liberty Ridge Farm in McAlisterville, Pa. The lawsuit said they were denied food and zip-tied at times while at the farm.

The farm is about 40 miles northwest of Harrisburg, Pa., in Juniata County, which is home to several churches and schools affiliated with the Mennonites, a conservative Christian denomination known for its agrarian lifestyle and disconnect from technology.

Now in their mid-20s, the men were only identified by their initials in the lawsuit, which was filed on Nov. 17 in U.S. District Court in Allentown, Pa. The complaint said that the men were frequently punished after the people in charge told them that they had not worked hard enough or that they had acted “against the Bible.”

Punishments included “dragging chains over their shoulders, breaking boulders into tiny pieces by hand with a small hammer and digging out stumps by hand,” according to the lawsuit.

If the boys discussed leaving the farm, the lawsuit said, they were threatened with excommunication from the church or their families.

Renee E. Franchi, a lawyer for the two men, said on Monday that she expected additional plaintiffs would join the lawsuit.

“From what we understand, there were many other young men who had similar traumatic experiences,” Ms. Franchi said, estimating that the number could be in the dozens. She said the farm housed four to six boys at any given time.

One of the plaintiffs went to live at the farm in 2011 and remained there until 2014, according to the lawsuit, which identified him by the initials D.C., and as a New Jersey resident.

The other man arrived at the farm in 2019 and spent 10 months there, according to the lawsuit, which identified him by the initials J.D.M., and as a Missouri resident.

The suit did not elaborate on why the two plaintiffs were placed at the farm.

Many of the boys who lived at the 80-acre farm — which included chicken houses, cattle and hog buildings, and a shop for making wooden pallets — did not receive any schooling, the lawsuit said.

Residents or their families were required to pay $2,300 a month to attend Liberty Ridge, which served “troubled” boys who had “special spiritual, emotional, and social needs,” the lawsuit said, citing a church publication. Mentors accompanied each of the boys all the time, including while they were sleeping, the lawsuit said.

The Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church could not be immediately reached for comment on Monday.

Attempts were made to contact church leaders through the Mennonite Heritage Center, an organization devoted to telling the story of Mennonite faith and life in eastern Pennsylvania, and through the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. A message was also left for a local church deacon.

The farm and its owner, identified in the lawsuit as Martin Nelson, were also named as defendants. Neither of them responded to a request for comment on Monday. Court records did not list lawyers for the defendants. The lawsuit was reported earlier by The Morning Call in Allentown.

It was not immediately clear whether the farm continues to operate as a home for Mennonite boys.

Mennonites are part of the 17th-century Protestant movement known as Anabaptism. So are the Amish, a group known for its more conservative customs, like shunning automobiles and worshiping in homes, barns or shops.

According to the Mennonite Heritage Center, eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites split from the Lancaster Mennonite Conference in 1968, seeking a stricter understanding of church discipline. While they maintain a plain dress and do not use televisions or radios, eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites worship in English instead of German and drive cars, Joel Horst Nofziger, the center’s executive director, said on Monday.

In the lawsuit, the men accused the church and the farm’s operators of violating state and federal human trafficking laws, in addition to federal racketeering laws.

Ms. Franchi, the lawyer for the two men, said that it had been difficult to gather information about the farm’s operation because of the nature of the Mennonite church.

“There really isn’t a whole lot of information out there, period,” she said. “They keep themselves pretty clean off the internet.”

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