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Church-based farm in Juniata County subjected residents to forced labor, extreme punishments, lawsuit claims

A federal lawsuit filed by two former residents claims that Liberty Ridge Farm, located in McAlisterville, violated federal laws against human trafficking.
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JUNIATA COUNTY, Pa. — A church-related farm business in Juniata County is the subject of a federal lawsuit claiming its leaders subjected boys to forced labor and other punishments, court records show.

The lawsuit was filed by two former residents at Liberty Ridge, a farm located near McAlisterville in Fayette Township. The plaintiffs claim they were subjected to various forms of punishment, including dragging heavy chains and breaking up rocks with hammers.

The plaintiffs claim the farm violated federal laws against human trafficking. 

The Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church and Related Areas, the church's non-profit corporation that oversees the farm, is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, along with the farm itself, the farm's owner, and the Mennonite Messianic Mission. 

The Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church and Related Areas is located in Ephrata, Lancaster County.

The plaintiffs are identified in the lawsuit by their initials. One plaintiff now lives in New Jersey, the other in Missouri, the lawsuit states.

According to the Associated Press, Liberty Ridge was set up in Juniata County in 2011 for boys and young adult men the Mennonite church considered troubled. The residents were believed to have spiritual, emotional and social needs, as well as behavioral problems. 

According to the plaintiffs, the farm's residents help raise chicken, beef and pork, build wooden pallets and fiberglass fence gates, and provides interstate trucking services.

Residents or the families pay about $2,300 a month to stay at the farm, and their labor -- which could stretch over six long days per week -- was unpaid, according to the plaintiffs.

The farm punished those who were said to have "acted against the Bible" or broken the farm's rules were forced to endure "consequences" that included being limited to rice, beans and water for meals, digging up tree stumps by hand, and dragging heavy chains over their shoulders, the plaintiffs said in the lawsuit.

Staff members at the farm are accused of using zip ties to restrain residents, who were told they would be excommunicated from their church and kept away from their families if they spoke of leaving the farm, the lawsuit states.

One of the plaintiffs states in the lawsuit that he spent three years at the farm, starting when he was about 14 and ending in 2014. The plaintiff claims he was never paid for his labor and at the start, received no schooling. 

He claims in the lawsuit he was tied up for at least 30 minutes and disciplined by being put to work with limited or no food or water for extended periods.

The other plaintiff was placed at Liberty Ridge about two years ago, after he had just turned 18, and was a resident of the farm for about 10 months, according to the lawsuit. The second plaintiff also claims he was restrained and put to hard work with little or no food or water.

“Defendants threatened (him) that if he left, they would have the police drag him back because the cops were on their side,” the lawsuit states.

The Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church and Related Areas is a conservative group with dozens of congregations and thousands of members, largely in Pennsylvania. 

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