An Interesting Twist in a Child Custody Case
By Richard E. Kelly
Although a bit apprehensive at first, I was recently asked to help a non-JW mom in a child custody hearing. Due to the story of my own childhood, Growing Up in Mama’s Club – A Childhood Perspective of Jehovah’s Witnesses, she believed I could help convince the court that her three school-aged children should not be baptized as JWs, if that was their choice, until they were 18 years old.
She’d married a disfellowshipped JW and early on made a non-binding verbal agreement with her husband that their kids would not be raised as JWs. After their divorce, the dad had a change of heart. He was reinstated and began attending meetings sporadically. Several months ago, he started taking the kids to the Kingdom Hall on the Sundays he had custody. As soon as the mom found out, she filed a complaint.
The mom did her homework and provided good documentation to the court to support her concerns. Then she petitioned for me and another ex-Bethelite to be her expert witnesses. The questions and our testimony were to be as follows:
State your name for the Court:
Richard E. Kelly.
Briefly describe your experiences and expertise related to the Kingdom Hall and the Watchtower Society:
I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness after my mother became a convert when I was four years old. I was baptized at ten. In 1958, my family answered a special calling to “serve where the need was great” and we moved to a small rural town in Nebraska. I started giving one-hour public talks at 15, appointed a ministerial servant at 16, and began to “pioneer” (a special 100-hour per month door-to-door ministry) at 17. At 18, I was invited to live and work at Bethel, the world headquarters for JWs. While there, I was selected to serve with an elite group of public speakers.
After two years, I left Bethel to get married. A year and a half later, I officially resigned from the church. Since my wife decided to stay, we worked out an amiable agreement on how to raise our children. However, in September 1981, a new policy of “shunning” was instituted. Because I was baptized and no longer a believer, I, along with thousands of ex-JWs, was shunned. My parents and siblings refused to speak to me.
In 1998, my youngest sister was murdered by her husband. My mother didn’t inform me until a week after her death. I soon began to write articles and a book about Growing Up in Mama’s Club – A Childhood Perspective of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 2008, I printed a revised, third edition. I am currently writing a sequel called, Ghosts from Mama’s Club.
State for the court within your experiences, what beliefs were of concern for you, not only from your own life, but for that of your children:
As a child: 1) my grandparents and I would meet a violent death at Armageddon if we didn’t believe the way JWs do. My mom tried to give it a positive spin, saying I would live forever in a paradise-like new world after God destroyed the world, but I knew in my heart that I wasn’t a true believer, so if Mama was right, I wasn’t going to live in paradise with her; 2) I would not be able to go to college; 3) in order to please God, I could not celebrate holidays, my birthday, or associate with non believers; 4) the country I lived in was demonized and serving in the military, pledging allegiance to the flag or standing when the national anthem were cardinal sins; 5) I could not challenge or question church beliefs or policies without being made to feel guilty and I was often told that this kind of reasoning was a sign that I didn’t really love Jehovah God.
As a parent: I reached an agreement with my wife that: 1) our children would receive blood transfusions if their life depended on it; 2) they could not be baptized until they were adults; 3) our religious beliefs were personal decisions based on research and spiritual needs and I didn’t love God less, and my actions and beliefs were not controlled by the devil, because I wasn’t a JW. 4) While my wife respected our agreement, behind my back, relatives and other well-meaning JWs would send our children letters, talk to them on the phone, or tell them in person things like Armageddon was close and they needed to go to the meetings and read the Watchtower if they didn’t want to be destroyed, etc.
Is it in your knowledge then, that if indoctrinated in the beliefs of JWs, that my children will be taught that the end of the world is near, and that in the end, I myself, or anyone not conforming to their beliefs, will not be saved? :
As a school aged child while part of the organization, what were some of the organization’s beliefs that were challenging to your success as a student? :
Because Armageddon was supposed to occur before I reached twenty, I was told that a worldly education was of no value. Instead, I needed to study literature published by JWs and participate in the door-to-door ministry if I wanted to please God and earn salvation.
- I could not participate in extra curricular school activities.
- I was not allowed to take elective classes in math, science, and history.
- I was not allowed to have worldly, non JW, school friends. I was told that though they may be well-meaning kids, they were bad association.
If after being baptized as a JW my children decided to embrace the beliefs that I raised them in, what actions of the organization would they be subject to? :
First of all, “baptism” for JWs is a unique experience. Before one can be baptized, which is accomplished by total water submersion, he or she must make a verbal oath in front of witnesses pledging total allegiance to Jehovah God and His earthly organization, the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society. If the baptized person breaks that oath, like attending another church, challenging JW beliefs, smoking cigarettes, etc., they will be disfellowshipped (excommunicated) and shunned by all JWs including immediate family. The emotional damage can be devastating for an adult raised as a child to believe that the end of the world is just around the corner, and isolated from mainstream America, only to find that he or she does not possess the skills and education to be productive, stable citizens in today’s world. That was the case with my sister and thousands of ex-JWs.
Additional Supporting Testimony
The other expert witness’ response about her experience and expertise with JWs was to be:
The children will be taught that blood transfusions are forbidden by God. If a child is baptized, he would have to refuse a transfusion. Otherwise, he could be disfellowshipped/shunned by JW family and friends if he accepted it as his wish. Many baptized JW teenagers are dying, Dennis Lindberg, age 14 is the most recent example, for refusing a needed transfusion. And then, they are praised by the organization for making their stand on the blood issue.
To be disfellowshipped is worse than death to a JW. Once they are baptized and openly disagree with anything in the Watchtower literature or anything considered loose conduct, they are shunned. All JW friends and relatives would not be able to even say “hi” to them; except if they are under 18, and then only their immediate household family could speak with them, but they could not speak regarding anything considered “spiritual,” “Bible”, or “organizational.”
There are twelve no nos’ for JW school aged children, making it very difficult and embarrassing for them in the classroom, often resulting in social isolation. They are:
Not being able to salute the flag. No patriotic songs. No art or music with holiday, nation anthem, or patriotic melodies. No birthdays or holiday parties. No organized sports after school, No extracurricular school programs or clubs. No voting. Cannot have non-JW friends outside of school. And a four-year college is demonized, even if they could have qualified for scholarships.
The five weekly JW meetings and door-to-door work are very boring for children. The learning objectives at meetings for them are unrealistic. And yet, they take top priority when it comes to how children can best please a JW parent.
The Judge’s Decision
To our surprise, the judge had done his homework and decided our testimonies were not necessary. After some deliberation with the mom and her ex, he ruled that she would have to be informed at least 90 days in advance before any of her kids could ask to be baptized by JWs. If that happened, the court would interview the child and the judge would make a judgment based on his discretion if the child was “mature” enough to make such a decision, emphatically stating that a child between ten and twelve was not mature enough. And, he did not stop there. Per the mom’s request, he stated that if one of the children requested knowledge of JW beliefs and wanted a “JW Bible study” that only their father was allowed to do so. No other JW, elder or other, could study one-on-one with the children.
Discover more about Richard Kelly at his website and blog: RichardEKelly.com. His book, Growing Up in Mama’s Club– A Childhood Perspective of Jehovah’s Witnesses, can be ordered through Amazon.com or from his website.