Many of you following the ongoing work here at PinehavenAbuse.Org have expressed your concern for the many children affected by the (now defunct) Pinehaven Pipeline which funneled at-risk youth from Southern Illinois 1,800 miles away from home to Pinehaven Christian Children’s Ranch in St. Ignatius, MT. One particular victim of this unethical and far-reaching local government operation ran by (now terminated) Truancy Officer Charlie Duke, is now 17-year old Cassie Casteel.
We first found out about Cassie a few months after she was whisked away from a facility in Indiana, where she was receiving the professional medical help she needed and deserved, to Pinehaven - a facility with no mental health credentials, and not even a single qualified counselor on staff. We responded to the pleas of her mother, who in the midst of a custody battle – had lost her daughter to a system designed solely to fill coffers and boost the egos of a small community church and the family who ran it. Offered no input and allowed no objection by local courts, attorneys or judges, Cassie’s mother felt hopeless – but hope, as we soon found out – was on the horizon.
Cassie’s first break came when her story was included in Anderson Cooper’s March 2012 coverage of Pinehaven, where the Pinehaven Pipeline was clearly exposed. This media attention sparked a flurry of debate both in Montana, but also in Southern Illinois, where a permanency hearing was quickly scheduled for June of 2012, and Cassie was flown back to appear before a judge, and Pinehaven’s Director Bob Larsson, was offered a chance to answer for the systemic culture of abuse at his facility.
Following CNN’s report and just prior to Cassie’s arrival, Bob Larsson decided to make an out of the way stop in Flora, IL to “accidently” visit Cassie’s mother at her place of employment (a local hotel). There, Bob tried desperately to both manipulate and intimidate Cassie’s mother into “towing the line”. You can read about this encounter here.
In June of 2012, Cassie was flown to Illinois for her court date, refused any non-supervised contact with her family, and was submitted to a grueling set of inquiries from both the judge and other court officials. Confiding with her mother after the inquiries, Cassie expressed her stress over the situation, citing the methods used to manipulate her into saying what they wanted her to say. Following this closed-door interrogation, the court heard from Bob Larsson for 42 minutes as he relayed the sales-driven story of Pinehaven as he has for over three decades. Enamored by his presentation, and no further objective inquiries, Bob was allowed by the court to dictate Cassie’s future from the stand, and with complete cooperation by all court officials, and without any input allowed from her family or other advocates – Cassie was ordered back to Pinehaven the next day, allowed only a few hours of visitation with her family under armed supervision at the courthouse. Cassie, a young female teenager, was then escorted and supervised (alone) by Charlie Duke, overnight before she flew back to Pinehaven in Montana. You can read more about these developments here.
A visit was scheduled for July 2012, wherein Cassie’s mother was to be allowed to visit Cassie at Pinehaven as a guest along with one of the short-term mission trips being organized by none other than Charlie Duke and his home church in Illinois. During the court proceedings, the official justification given for this visit was not for the development of Cassie’s relationship with her mother, nor for any other Cassie-centric purpose, rather with the intent that Cassie’s mother might “become more comfortable with Pinehaven and what they do up there.”
In July of 2012, Cassie’s mother was able to accompany Charlie Duke’s church group to Montana where, as thousands before her, she was awestruck by the beautiful scenery visible from ever square foot within Pinehaven’s 1,800 acres of barbed-wire fence. Throughout her week-long visit, Cassie’s mom was able to spend considerable amount of time with Cassie, involving both work and leisure periods, yet oddly, over the entire week, was never allowed to enter the home in which Cassie was living, allowed to speak to any other Pinehaven child (one was met due to accidental slip by Pinehaven staff), and was routinely shunned by certain members of Pinehaven staff for her involvement with Anderson Cooper’s CNN story.
A few months after the short-term mission trip led by Charlie Duke arrived back in Illinois, Charlie’s long-standing employment as a Truancy Officer was terminated. You can read more about this development here.
Over the next 11 months, communications with Cassie were heavily monitored and restricted without reasons provided. Christmas passed without even an offer for visitation, and Cassie’s school year came to a close. Immediately following Pinehaven’s annual graduation, Cassie’s mom was notified that another court date had been set, and that Cassie would be appearing.
A week before the court date, Bob Larsson escorted Cassie to Illinois along with his wife Nancy Larsson as they had plans to visit supporting churches in the region. Instead of dropping Cassie off with her family, Bob Larsson delivered Cassie to Oblong Christian Children’s Home in Southern Illinois – without notifying Cassie’s location to either the court in charge of her care, or her parents. For seven days, nobody but Bob & Nancy Larsson, select Pinehaven staff and the faculty at Oblong Christian Children’s Home knew where Cassie was. In case of emergency from either side, it would have been impossible to account for Cassie.
After seven days at Oblong Christian Children’s Home, Cassie was delivered to the courthouse where she was reunited with multiple members of her family. Visiting in the courthouse lobby and supervised by Bob Larsson (until a court official forced him to leave them alone), Cassie and her family enjoyed their first moments together in a year.
Court proceedings progressed rapidly with attorneys representing Cassie, her mother and the county reviewing information, taking testimony from Cassie and her mother, and making their recommendations. Surprisingly, Bob Larsson was not asked to testify during the hearing, and before long – a two week visitation was ordered while the court deliberated Cassie’s case. With smiles on their faces and optimism in their hearts, Cassie left the courtroom with her family, stopped only briefly by a disheveled Bob Larsson who informed them, “We expected this to happen. I’ll go back and make sure you get all your stuff. Good Luck.”
Over two weeks, Cassie was able to settle into her home, her family and a semblance of “normal life” on the “outside”. The days passed quickly as Cassie was able to enjoy monumental family moments, time with her mother, introduction to a part-time opportunity, and simply, the ability to stop and breathe without the institutional pressures she had grown accustomed to.
The day of court arrived and all were gathered in the courtroom, this time with Cassie and her mother behind the bar, and without the ominous presence of Bob Larsson, who had chosen to remain in Montana. In short order, the judge in charge of Cassie’s fate declared that while there is much work to be done on the part of Cassie, her mother, and her whole family – he found that it be in the best interest of Cassie, the community, and her family that Cassie be returned home to grow, learn and succeed. With his strongest well wishes and expressions of confidence, the judge closed out the case – and Cassie and her mother walked out of the courtroom, hand in hand, towards a future together.
After many debilitating losses and few small victories, PinehavenAbuse.org is joyfully relieved to mark this struggle for a child’s freedom as – CASE CLOSED.