Woman in cult loses custody case

Associated Press/June 12, 1990

Kenosha, Wisconsin -- A woman who lost a custody case because of her involvement with a "dangerous cult" may appeal the ruling on grounds that her constitutional right to freedom of religion and association may have been violated according to her attorney.

Shirley Yarber, who is married to Larry Yarber, leader of a religious group in Caledonia was deeply disappointed by the decision according to her attorney Katherine Lingle.

In the written custody decision issues Monday, Circuit Court Judge Robert V. Baker said Larry Yarber, the stepfather of the three children, led a dangerous religious cult and brainwashed and manipulated his followers.

The judge in granting custody of the children to their natural father, ruled that Yarber's influence was "destructive to their young minds and to their morals."

Wayne Pierce, a one-time follower of Yarber, filed suit last seeking custody of his two daughters and a son, ages 9 to 12.

Lingle said Shirley Yarber saw the decision "asĀ  an attack against her religious beliefs and also her freedom of association."

"She always has said if you want to look at what kind of mother she is, you should look at the children and how well they're doing. And her children are very mature, stable children," Lingle said.

The attorney said she was identifying and refining grounds for a possible appeal.

Lingle views the alleged cult as a harmless, close-knit group of friends dedicated to the pursuit of education and athletics, who organize and share in recreational and spiritual activities.

"Larry and Shirley Yarber will most likely not go through with their planned divorce," Lingle said. The Yarbers had filed for divorce in an effort to improve Shirley Yarber's chances of retaining custody of the children.

Baker noted that the children said they would prefer to remain with their mother.

The children find being with [their father] boring, but perhaps that is what they need at this stage of their life," he said.

Shirley Yarber may have liberal visitation rights, Baker ruled, but the youngsters are barred from visiting her husband or members of his religious group.

"It is the intention of this court," Baker said, "that the Pierce children are not to have any contact whatsoever with this dangerous religious cult."

Shirley Yarber intends to fully comply with the judge's order, Lingle said.

Shirley Yarber has had custody of the children since she and Pierce were divorced in 1986. She later married Yarber, who runs his own independent Christian commune.

At a five-day hearing conducted by Baker in April, Pierce and other former members of the cult testified that Yarber controlled his follower's lives, did not work but lived lavishly on their offerings, undermined parent-child ties, condoned child beating and took sexual advantage of female followers.

Yarber denied most of the allegations.

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