Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal

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Sunday, March 8, 1992



Beacon Journal staff writer

A brochure for the Brinkhaven Homes for Youth asks a question: "Ever wonder why some young people race toward the brink of a cliff, oblivious of disaster, when you can see the bodies of their predecessors on the rocks below?"

The brochure provides no answer: "For some inexplicable reason, many kids don't see it."

In the same way, there may never be a complete explanation of how Brinkhaven's founder, the Rev. William Brink, managed to jeopardize everything he created in the past 13 years.

The fact remains, he did.

By his marriage in October to a 16-year-old former resident of one of his homes, Brink, 55, sparked a controversy that already has cost him his job and those of two of his sons and their wives.

The controversy threatens to destroy another cherished child: Brinkhaven, the private, non-profit corporation that since 1979 has operated group homes that have served more than 2,000 delinquent and troubled youths, most sent there by area county juvenile courts.

Brink also could lose his freedom: A Stark County grand jury is investigating allegations he sexually abused both his new wife and a woman who lived with him for nearly a decade as his daughter.

It wasn't the first time Brink has walked along the edge, as he was the first to admit.

Although Brink has declined to comment since the investigation began, he related his "turnabout story" during the 1990 kickoff of a $2.5 million fund- raising drive.

It is a compelling parable of a hard-drinking "young, wild race driver (38 broken bones)" left to raise three children after a divorce at age 21.

In 1971, Brink's 16-year-old son died in a car racing accident. Afterward, Brink said, he drifted through a series of aborted careers as a boxer, a bar bouncer, a country-western musician and a police officer trainee until he "found the Lord" during a church service in his native Pennsylvania.

That part of Brink's story ends happily with him enrolling in Salem Bible College in Ohio, discovering his calling as a minister to delinquent youths and founding the Wesley Youth Foundation and his first group home in 1979 "on a shoestring and a dream."

Over the next decade the dream came true.

In 1980, Brink moved the home from Salem to a 40-acre former dairy farm in Lawrence Township, near Canal Fulton. The farm was donated by the Holmes Limestone Co., owned by the Mennonite family of Emanuel Mullet.

Two years later, Brink changed the name of his non-profit corporation to Brinkhaven.

In 1985, Brink established the Victory Children's Home, a 20-bed home for unwanted children in Fort Pierce, on Florida's Atlantic coast. For several years, Brinkhaven operated two other homes, in Knox County in Ohio and Belleville in central Pennsylvania.

Brinkhaven also grew financially: Between 1981 and 1989, the last year for which tax records are available, Brinkhaven's income increased nearly fivefold, from $374,338 to $1.7 million.

More than two-thirds of Brinkhaven's income comes from tax dollars -- $62- per-day fees paid by juvenile courts and county welfare agencies for each youngster sent to the homes. Only about 10 percent of Brinkhaven's youths are private placements, sponsored by their families.

Kid tested, court approved

Brinkhaven's reputation for successful rehabilitation also grew, certainly among some area juvenile court officials.

In a 1987 letter to Brink, Summit County Juvenile Court Judge William P. Kannel offered nothing but praise.

"Once again, I would like to express my appreciation to you for a job well done," Kannel said. "Many young people from Summit County have benefited from the guidance they received in your group homes."

Ray Powell, the court's placement coordinator, was so impressed he agreed to serve on the Brinkhaven board of trustees for several years.

"We have seen more successful placements returning home or emancipating (from Brinkhaven) than with many of the programs we've used over the years throughout the state," Powell said in another glowing letter of recommendation in 1987.

Over the years, Summit County placed at least 650 youngsters at Brinkhaven -- the largest contingent from a single Ohio county.

Downside downplayed

Not that there weren't problems -- they just weren't well publicized.

In March 1986, the Stark County Department of Human Services held a meeting attended by representatives of the prosecutor's office, the sheriff's department, state and district offices of the state Department of Human Services, and the Ohio Department of Youth Services, which licenses Brinkhaven.

The meeting was called because of the large number of complaints "of a similar nature" about the homes, said Ronald Lewis, program administrator of Stark's Human Services Department.

Between 1982 and 1986, the department investigated five incidents at Brinkhaven. Four of the complaints involved excessive discipline -- staff members losing control and striking youngsters who were acting up, Lewis said.

None of the investigations resulted in charges, because the incidents were not so serious they constituted violations of child-abuse laws.

Lewis said repeated recommendations were made to Brinkhaven to improve staff training, hire more staff, be more selective in the selection of both staff and youngsters and more closely adhere to state regulations.

During the same years, the Ohio Youth Services Department was hearing complaints that Brinkhaven used corporal punishment and pressured residents to attend religious services.

Changes mandated

In a June 1986 effort to force changes, the state moved to revoke Brinkhaven's licenses.

It worked -- at least on paper. In a legal agreement signed by Brink that year, Brinkhaven established a "no corporal punishment" policy and promised "not to force or cause any resident to attend any religious service or activity." Brinkhaven also agreed that "reasonable measures will be taken ... to assure that alternative faith services are available."

During the next several years, there was a disagreement among Youth Services officials about whether Brinkhaven was living up to the agreement.

Incidents of improper use of force to restrain residents were reported by four girls interviewed in January 1987 by Don G. Shkolnik, chief of court services for Youth Services. In his report, he said the girls also complained "they had personally been coerced into religious services."

Continued intensive monitoring of the agreement was demanded in Columbus over the protests of Carl W. Drennen, the regional licensing representative in Akron, who indicated he was satisfied.

To continue frequent inspections, Drennen wrote his superiors in December 1987, "would be engaging in a course of conduct designed to intimidate and harass this facility."

State records indicate the wrangling ended by 1989, when Shkolnik said he also was satisfied. "I am now convinced that positive, fundamental changes have occurred," he said in a September 1989 letter to Brinkhaven.

Stark County officials weren't so sure.

Allegations continue

Four more complaints of excessive discipline were investigated by the county Human Services Department from 1986 to 1988.

"The same kind of concerns -- kids out of control who were hit," Lewis said.

After 1989, however, the investigations largely stopped because a change in state guidelines made the counties where the youngsters came from primarily responsible for looking into their complaints.

"We took the stand we would fully investigate cases involving Stark County youngsters and their families," Lewis said. Other allegations were referred to the departments of Human Services or Children's Services in the counties where the children originated.

How many complaints there were and whether they were substantiated is unknown, Lewis said.

Reflecting that uncertainty, Stark County Family Court cut to a trickle the number of children it sent to Brinkhaven.

If local officials were mistrustful, so were some at Brinkhaven, who argue civil authorities were biased because of the homes' fundamentalist Christian philosophy.

"Government agencies frown on Brinkhaven because it's a ministry," said Barron Hixon, a Massillon dentist invited by Brink to join the Brinkhaven board in the mid-1980s and who often preaches at Sunday services. "I think they police them more heavily."

But Hixon agreed relations improved by 1989.

"There hasn't been heat for three or four years," he said.

Certainly, Youth Services appeared to trust Brinkhaven. The department took no action after a 35-year-old counselor ran away with a 13-year-old resident on Dec. 31, 1990. The girl was recovered a week later in Mississippi and the counselor, Jonathan Land, was convicted of child stealing and sentenced in October to a three-to-15-year term in prison.

Youth Services officials said they did not investigate because Brink argued the incident was an isolated aberration and Land had been fired.

"The situation had been dealt with," said Ralph Starkey, Ohio Youth Services deputy director.

Brink, his relationship with the state secure, was ready for a major expansion -- a three-year drive, launched in 1990, to raise $2.5 million to buy 80 surrounding acres and build 10 new group homes.

Derailed by impropriety

While Brinkhaven flourished into a community institution, several aspects of Brink's personal life indicate he remained something of a rebel -- at least for a fundamentalist minister.

Friends and co-workers say they never knew Brink's second marriage, which produced three children who all worked for Brinkhaven, was not sanctioned either by a church or civil authorities until after the couple split up in 1982.

"I never questioned that he was married," said Richard Tobias, a Department of Youth Services worker who helped initially license Brinkhaven and became a member of the homes' board of trustees.

Nor were they aware Brink never adopted Marylee Brink, an impoverished Amish girl who came to a Brinkhaven group home in October 1981, when she was almost 14, and moved several months later into the Brink household and lived as his daughter.

Brink did tell friends last fall about his plans to marry 16-year-old Kathryn Baldwin, the niece of former Brinkhaven board member the Rev. Frank Baldwin of Fort Wayne, Ind.

Several, including Tobias and Hixon, warned him not to do it -- if only because of the age difference and the appearance of impropriety.

Despite the warnings, Brink went ahead with the marriage, in Gulfport, Miss., on Oct. 24.

His world began unraveling a month later when he took Kathryn to Nashville, Tenn., where Marylee had moved in September to start school. Brink landed in jail that night after being charged with harassing staff members at a psychiatric medical center where Marylee Brink said she was being treated for sexual abuse.

The charge was dismissed in January on condition that Brink not commit the offense again. But during the night Brink spent in jail, Kathryn said, she talked to Marylee by phone and heard her allegations of sexual abuse. The next morning, the two women left together and say they have not seen Brink since.

They told their stories to authorities of the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

Marylee charged that for nearly a decade Brink had coerced her into having sex. She charged that Brink secretly arranged for the adoption of their child, born in Mississippi in 1988, during a six-month leave of absence from Brinkhaven.

Kathryn said she had become pregnant by Brink shortly before their marriage and was first seduced by him in a motel room in Louisville, Ky.

Tennessee authorities contacted the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification. Word was passed to the Stark County Sheriff's Department, sparking a full investigation.

The Brinkhaven trustees became aware of the charges against Brink through a second channel: Kathryn and Marylee sent letters detailing their allegations to Tobias.

Tobias became a leader in a faction demanding that Brink step down as president.

"I felt betrayed by him," Tobias said. "I still love Bill Brink the man. I feel God used Bill to start a ministry."

Allegations persisted

Tobias and others on the board hoped the allegations against Brink, who took a leave of absence in December, would not affect the group homes.

For several weeks, it looked as if that could happen. The Department of Youth Services indicated it would not take any action until trustees completed an internal investigation.

That attitude changed after newspaper stories about the sexual abuse allegations began in January and Stark County Prosecutor Robert D. Horowitz announced he was widening the investigation to resolve the suspicions of local agencies about the overall Brinkhaven operation. In addition to the issues of excessive discipline and coerced religious services, there also were reports dating to the mid-1980s of questionable adoptions of babies born to unwed mothers at Brinkhaven.

The whirlwind struck home on Feb. 14, when state, local and federal investigators descended on Brinkhaven and confiscated a vanload of records subpoenaed by a grand jury.

The next day, a certified letter arrived from Columbus, notifying Brinkhaven officials of the Youth Services' intention to revoke the group homes' licenses.

Since then, a reconstituted board of trustees has appealed the revocations and moved to sever all connections with Brink -- going so far as to fire his two sons and their wives -- in an effort to convince authorities that the organization Brink fathered can stand alone.

© Copyright 1998 The Akron Beacon Journal

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