The Wimbushes had a family like few others: ten home-schooled kids in Buford who almost constituted their own tribe, with their lives interwoven with themselves and few others.
They had their own website that displayed happy-looking kids and brimmed with parental pride. It also talked of their own religious beliefs, derived from the Old Testament, which seemed to almost form their own religion.
“I knew I always wanted kids, ” the father, 33-year-old Recardo Wimbush told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution when he was a football star at Georgia Tech where he and his wife met and started a family. “They bring a bright spot to your heart, and they have with me.”
But on Thursday both Recardo and his 37-year-old wife, Therian, learned with more certainty that they could lose everything for which they have striven. Gwinnett County Juvenile Judge Robert Rodatus sided with state authorities who plan to break up the family because they contend the Wimbushes jeopardize their children’s well-being.
The couple was arrested last June on charges of felony child abuse for imprisoning a son in the basement for as long as 22 months, often locked in a room that the judge described as worst than a Supermax prison cell.
The Wimbushes considered it therapeutic. The middle-school-age boy, according to testimony, was being disciplined for thefts, lying and mistreating his siblings and being counseled daily to put his life on the right path.
Rodatus did not find it theraputic. He found that while the suburban couple had in many ways done a remarkable job of raising a small tribe, the treatment of the one child was such an anathema to make them unfit as parents.
“If you want to be a Pollyanna and call it an error in parenting go ahead,” Rodatus said. “I call it a dungeon.”
The judge’s ruling ended an emotional morning. Recardo, 33, wiped away a tear while looking at pictures drawn for him by the children he had not seen since being jailed. Therian, 37, broke down and wept as she begged the judge to understand that she was trying to correct her son’s behavior that could have led him to prison.
Rodatus dismissed the argument of Darice Good, an expert on child law and the lawyer appointed for the kids.
Good said the high-performing children — including the imprisoned one — had suffered no significant psychological or emotional harm and that they faced greater mental-health risks from the family being broken up.
Psychiatrist Sarah Vinson testified the Wimbush children have positive self images. Abused children, Vinson said, do not.
The Wimbushes “are very much parents who want to help their kids, who love their kids,” Vinson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They made one very bad decision that got dramatic attention.”
Rodatus noted the children were well developed academically, polite and well-behaved as evidence of skillful parenting, particularly by Therian.
But he also noted during the hearings that the mother had a difficult personality and not necessarily one inclined toward cooperation with the state.
The Wimbushes’ arrests last summer shocked people who knew them — including teenagers whom Therian tutored professionally. The couple had met while at Georgia Tech where Therian, who received a masters degree in engineering and had dual degree with Spelman, tutored athletes and Recardo was a standout linebacker and team captain. He was a supervisor with a railroad company at the time of his arrest.
But lawyers for the state expressed even greater shock at the Wimbush lifestyle, declaring it unfit and depicting it as a cult dominated by a mother who they doubted would ever submit to ongoing state dictum on child rearing.
The family had developed its own hybrid religious beliefs from the Torah, the first books of the Bible. While at times the Wimbushes maintained ties to a Christian church, they described themselves as unchristian believers, who followed kosher dietary laws and did not celebrate holidays such as Easter and Christmas or certain state holidays like Thanksgiving.
Vicky Wallace, a lawyer for the Division of Family and Children Services, said the children — all whom were home schooled and tested at academic grade level — were being isolated from society and would suffer accordingly. She cited the parental decisions not to immunize all their children, and to keep them in such a close-knit environment in which they related only to the family as areas of particular concern of what she called “the Wimbush way.”
“They’re opposed to public schools, they are opposed to medical care, they are opposed even to the Girl Scouts,” Wallace said. “They want us to go away. They want to keep doing things their own way.”
She noted the son who was being disciplined was at least for a time kept in a room that had little light, was filthy and had no toys, television or books, which were in abundance throughout the rest of the house.
For at least a time, the child was kept in a room with a chain latch on the outside until the Wimbushes removed it at the instruction of DFCS. An anonymous tip about the discipline first led DFCS to the family.
Lawyer for the parents and children, however, condemned the state agency for making no plan to reunify the family in accordance with its own rules and for refusing to allow the children to visit their parents in jail.
DFCS lawyer Wallace reminded Rodatus that it was his decision to remove all the children at the first court hearing last June, which was initially only regarding the one child. The court was shocked by the Wimbushes’ testimony, Wallace said.
The social agency agreed the children should be kept separate from their parents.”From the very beginning we have asked for non reunification,” she said.
The state is now expected to move to terminate the Wimbushes’ parental rights. Rodatus, who noted that in many ways the Wimbushes were good parents, encouraged them to seek counseling and to focus on resolving their criminal case.