Having a mentor from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program is supposed to be an educational, uplifting experience. Ohio native April Defibaugh certainly thought it would help her 11-year-old son. And everything was fine until her son’s mentor took him to get baptized (apropos of nothing). The pastor held him underwater (to the boy’s surprise), leading him to have recurring nightmares.
Last September, she filed a police report calling for criminal charges against everyone involved.
“They held my son under water. It wasn’t like they sprinkled water on his head, it was like full immersion. He kicked, he screamed and told them beforehand that he was afraid. Every day since then he’s had nightmares, the same recurring dream, about being baptized over and over like he’s drowning,” says Defibaugh.
Now she wants assault and child endangering charges filed against the Morning Star Friends Church in Chardon, the pastor, the big brother and the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization itself.
The officer who filed the report told her it’s unlikely any of the criminal charges would stick since there was no physical harm. That said, it was appalling to think that these people could get away with forcing Christianity upon a child who wasn’t asking for it. It’s the result of a mindset that thinks you’re helping people by foisting your beliefs on them — something that would undoubtedly be controversial if any other religion were involved. (Can you imagine Todd Starnes‘ reaction if a Big Brother took the autistic child of a Christian mother to a Satanic Black Mass ceremony?)
That’s what I knew several months ago. Looks like nothing came of the charges because American Atheists is now filing a lawsuit on behalf of April Defibaugh and her husband Gregg. They’re suing the local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Big Brother assigned to their son (David Guarnera), his church, the pastor (Matthew Chesnes), the court-appointed guardian ad litem who proselytized to the family and assigned Guarnera to their son (Margaret Vaughan), and her organization.
The lawsuit alleges that [child] V’s court-appointed guardian ad litem, Margaret Vaughan, repeatedly proselytized to V’s parents, April and Gregg DeFibaugh, and their children and told them that “families need God to raise children.” Despite complaining multiple times to Vaughan’s supervisors, no corrective action was taken by the agency. In 2015, Vaughan recruited David Guarnera, a member of her church, to act as a mentor for V through the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Northeast Ohio (BBBS).
According to the suit, despite explicit instructions from the DeFibaughs to refrain from religious activities with V, Guarnero would frequently discuss religion with V. On August 28, 2016, Guarnero took V to a picnic at his church, the Morning Star Friends Church in Chardon, and, along with the church pastor, Matthew Chesnes, forcibly baptized V, pushing him under water. Since the incident, V has suffered anxiety and extreme emotional distress.
“We are horrified by Pastor Chesnes’ and Mr. Guanera’s actions,” said Amanda Knief, American Atheists’ national legal director. “The people that the DeFibaughs relied on to protect their child violated their trust and their constitutional rights.”
The lawsuit asks for all the bad actions to be declared unconstitutional and for an appropriate amount of compensatory and punitive damages in addition to legal costs and attorneys’ fees.
Again, I just keep going back to how furious Christians would be if anyone tried to convert one of their kids — a developmentally disabled one, no less! — without permission. There’s no question there’d be a national outcry. I’m curious to see how the defendants respond in this case. Can there be any defense for their actions?
(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier. An earlier version of this post said the son was autistic when, in fact, he is said to only have “autistic tendencies.” I’ve removed those references from the article.)