CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — The founder and director of Miracle Meadows Christian boarding school in Harrison County has been sentenced to serve time in jail for crimes related to child neglect.
Susan Gayle Clark, 70, of Pennsboro, received six months for misdemeanor child neglect creating risk of injury and 30 days for a guilty plea to misdemeanor failure to report. Those two sentences were ruled to run concurrently.
Additionally, Clark will be subject to five years of probation in which she is not allowed to leave the state or have contact with children under the age of 18 that are not related to her and must complete community service.
If Clark violates any terms of her probation, an additional year will be added to her incarceration for a sentence related to one misdemeanor count of obstructing an officer that was suspended in lieu of the probation.
Before issuing the sentence, Harrison County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Bedell was critical of the methods utilized at the Seventh-day Adventist-affiliated program for troubled adolescence.
He described the use of handcuffs, isolation chambers and other methods to restrain and control unruly behavior as “not Christian values…at least not for the Christianity I believe in.”
Clark was arrested back in August of 2014, along with Timonthy Aaron Arrington, an employee at the school.
The allegations stemmed from witness accounts that staff at Miracle Meadows “utilized punishment against individuals by restraining them with handcuffs, in one incident where the individuals wrists were found to have been bleeding as a result of handcuffs.”
Other allegations lodged against the director were obstructing law enforcement investigations into the matter, failure on her part as a Mandatory Report to bring sexual abuse involving students to light and keeping children at her Ritchie County home after the school had been shut down by the state DHHR and the students were supposedly returned to her parents.
In February, Clark entered into a deal with the state that allowed her to plead guilty to the three misdemeanor charges in exchange for two felonies and three other misdemeanor charges being dismissed.
At Friday’s sentencing, with half a gallery of supporters behind her, the defense argued that “a life of service” should not lead to incarceration after these crimes.
Three character witnesses were called to the stand in support of Clark that included a former student, the corporate president of the former school and her daughter.
The former student, now a pastor in Maryland, said he came to Miracle Meadows at a low point in his adolescence, involved in drugs, gangs and violence.
“Two hours from taking my mother’s life,” he said, was when he became enrolled and his life turned around.
He claimed the love Clark showed to him, despite his aggression toward her and the staff, had an impact on his life.
“My life is completely different, it’s like a movie.”
Kingsley Whitsett said that he first met Clark through her husband as a fellow pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination from Buckhannon.
He came to know her better when he and his wife enrolled their son at Miracle Meadows who “was just not developing too well” after a move from Upshur County.
In that time, he said he had never heard any complaints from his son, despite his habit for speaking his mind.
As a corporate president, he claimed Clark took the position for the love of children and service, as the pay was limited to a monthly stipend generated from tuition and donations.
The final character witness said that at the age of 10, she became Clark’s daughter through the state, coming from a family of abuse and neglect.
The love of her new family turned her life around and spared her a fate she is sure she would have suffered has she not come into Clark’s life.
“I wish we had more foster parents in my county, in my state like my mom and dad.”
She would go on to work at Miracle Meadows for 10 years, on and off, and become a social worker that now resides and works in Tennessee with her own family.
Clark’s defense attorney, Tom Dyer, argued that any sentence issued should not come with the consideration for prison time.
While he admitted to the court that crimes had been committed, he said the measures taken by Clark and her staff were perhaps “what was required to take on this ministry” of dealing with troubled youths.
Also, noting a few students “didn’t weather the experience,” the numbers of crimes he found in his research were in the “tens” and not “hundreds.”
Clark also rose to speak before the court, requesting leniency, pledging to follow the rules of probation “to the detail” if incarceration was left out.
She also explained that it was difficult for her “to contemplate that I was going to end my life as a criminal” after she signed her part of the plea deal, but had since comes to terms with her guilt.
The state argued some period of incarceration was appropriate in this case as while she may have come to terms with her guilt, it was not the same as taking responsibility for the crimes.
Prosecutor Rachel Romano felt it was telling that while 45 letters were filed to the court in support of Clark, only eight came from students –one of which was the character witness– after decades of the school being open.
She went on to recall the severity of the control methods, handcuffing children naked in isolation rooms with only a bucket to hold their excrement.
“We can’t treat each other like this,” Romano said.
Ultimately, Judge Bedell sided with the state in the matter and was concerned in defense of Clark, there seemed to be no concern for the children that were victims of this crime.
He expressed that a society is judged by how it treats it’s elderly and children and “society, perhaps, failed in these proceedings.”
In terms of leniency, Bedell stated Clark had already benefited by the two felonies and three misdemeanors being dropped as part of the deal.
After the sentencing, Dyer requested that Clark be permitted to self-report to North Central Regional Jail as family had come from across the country to be with her.
Bedell denied the request noting it had been roughly two years since the warrant for Clark’s arrest and that a “day of sentencing is the day of sentencing.”
Arrington’s case remains pending in court.