For five weeks, a bitter struggle has unfolded in Maryland over who should control the mind of Donna Seidenberg, 23.
With her mother on one side, and the Hare Krishna sect on the other, her case has been in and out of the courtrooms in two jurisdictions. She has been shuttled from the Hare Krishna temple in Montgomery County to her mother's home in Baltimore, to an undisclosed spot for "deprogramming," and reportedly back once more to the Hare Krishnas.
Donna Seidenberg's case is one episode in a nationwide controversy that has arisen as parents have sought to gain custody of their fully growth offspring and to rid them, through "deprogramming," of their attachments to unconventional religious sects.
The parents generally believe that their sons or daughters have been "brainwashed" into joining the sects, like Hare Krishna.
The sects, supported by the Americans Civil Liberties Union, believes that the members are competent adults who can make up their own minds about their lives.
Legally, these cases are largely in uncharted territory where precedents and annotated codes seem less useful than deeply-felt emotions. "We are talking about the essence of civilization - mother, father and children," said San Francisco Judge S. Lee Vavuris, who last week granted parents of five Unification Church members custoday of their children for "deprogramming."
"I am sure (parents) would not submit their children to harm," he said.
Temporary guardianships or "consservatrships," which are being used by the parents, traditionally have been applied to tolder persons who are judged mentally incompetent. Their use in recent cases around the country and in the case of Donna Seidenberg is a development of the last year, al aternative to the abductions other parents had tried before.
On Feb. 26, Seidenberg, who was engaged to another Hare Krishna member, Ed Bavis, went to her mother's home in Baltimore, ostensibly for her own bridal's shower. Bavis went along but left the mother, Pearl Seidenberg, and the daughter to go shopping. They never returned home.
The Maryland state ACLU, which was asked for help by the Hare Krishnas, discovered later that the conservatorship had been awarded to Mrs. Seidenberg on Feb. 24 by Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Richard B. Latham without prior notice to Donna Seidenberg, and without psychiatric examination, testimony or an adversary hearing in court as required by the Maryland guardianship law. The papers in the case also were sealed from the public.
J. James McKenna, a Montgomery County attorney who represented Mrs. Seidenberg and at least three other sets of parents in similar cases in the Washington-Baltimore area, said the presumption is that if notice were given to the youths in advance, "they would disappear."
"We are essentially appealing to the inherent equitable powers of the court," McKenna said. "We cite a wrong that is occuring and ask the court to exercise its broad equity powers to right the wrong. We are not trying to disregard the law. We're trying to say to the court - here's a problem and we need help," McKenna said.
However, Barbara Mello of the Maryland state ACLU contended that "the judges are not following the law," and are "being swayed by the emotional appeals of parents.
"There is no need for secrecy," she asserted, "and we don't understand why the adversary hearings are not being held on the question of (mental) competency."
Mrs. Seidenberg submitted to Judge Latham affidavis identical to those used by McKenna's clients in similar cases. The affidavis allege that the child "appears to be the victims of mind control through hypnosis, mesmerism and/or brainwashing," which allegedly are "imposed by the (religious) group."
Also submitting an affidavit in the Seidenberg case was Andrew Stubbs, a former Hare Krishna member in Catonville, Md., who was "deprogrammed" after his parents in Pasadena, Md., obtained custody of him Jan. 21 in Baltimore County Circuit Court with McKenna's help.
Stubbs said in his affidavit: "I was rescued from the cult through the efforts of my parents . . . The counselling that I have obtained as the result of the care provided by my family has been of grear benefit to me in that I now realize and do believe that I was the victim of mind control through brainwashing by the group."
Just a few weeks before, Stubbs had been adjudged incompetent by the court.
After discovering the Seidenberg guardianship order, the ACLU filed a habeas corpus writ in Baltimore City asking Mrs. Seidenberg to produce her daughter. After a series of delays, Judge Marshall Levin last week declined jurisdiction and asked Judge Latham to entertain the petition since he was handling the custody order.
On Monday, without the ACLU's knowledge Seidenberg and her mother appeared before Judge Latham and requested the conservatorship be dismissed. Donna renounced the cult at that time. The judge agreed, and Donna Seidenbrg again was a free agent.
She disappeared from her mother's home the next day.
Rupanaga, president of the Hare Krishna temple in Potomac, said that Donna had "played along with her deprogrammes." He said she called Bavis, her fiance, on Tuesday. The two are now at an undisclosed location where Seidenberg is recuperating from her ordeal, he added.
According to Mello, Seidenberg had contacted Bavis by telephone 10 days ago and told him she eas "faking her deprogramming."
Mrs. Seidenberg said yesterday, "I do not know where she is. I only know that she has disappeared. I don't know if she was kidnapped or went on her own free will . . . I'm concerned period. You can imagine what I have been through."
Meanwhile, McKenna, who is a Montgomery County public defender and in privte practice acknowledged that he was asked by State Public Defender Allen Murrell to cease his involvement in these cases because of the "impression" of conflict of interest between his public and private law practice, McKenna said he agreed.
Both McKenna and the judges have been citicized by ACLU attorneys and the cults for their method of handling these cases.
Earlier this month, the ACLU national board passed a resolution opposing the "use of mental incomptency proceedings, temporary conservatorships, or denial of government protection as a method of depriving people of the free exercise of religion at least with respect to people who have reached the age of majority.
One Montegomery County judge, Circuit Court Judge John J. Mitchell, conceded that judges are confounded by the issues presented in these cases.
He said when he agreed to grant a temporary conservatorship to the parents of Frederick Macca, a Unification Church member, in February, he was persuaded that the youth "was in dire need of assistance - that he was not being cared for physically and that he wanted to go home."
Mitchell later was convinced by Unification Church lawyers to dismiss the guardianship order.