Lakeville -- Former Attleboro sect member Karen Robidoux has entered MeadowHaven, a cult recovery center in Lakeville. She was sentenced Tuesday to 2½ years in prison for the starvation death of her infant son, but was released after receiving credit for 35 months served before the trial.
Ms. Robidoux will participate in a treatment program to help her develop her own identity, said MeadowHaven founders Robert and Judith Pardon.
"Even to pick something off a menu in a restaurant, they are just not used to having choices," Ms. Pardon said.
The center, on rural Crooked Lane in a former nursing home, now houses seven ex-members of various authoritarian religious groups, including a woman with a 5-year-old child.
Many former cult members have been extremely isolated and come to MeadowHaven without basic skills. Some have never been examined by a doctor.
"Eighty percent of the therapy that goes on here is outside of the formal therapy," Mr. Pardon said.
Over a typical six- to eight-month stay, the residents interact with one another and the outside world. Some hold part-time jobs.
When they talk to one another, they are often shocked to hear that leaders of various cults use the same messages.
"One day, Karen was looking at a video of another group, and when she saw what they were doing, she said, 'Are they crazy?'" Ms. Pardon said. "But then she said, 'Oh, that used to be me.'"
The couple has been involved in the case since before the murder trials of Jacques and Karen Robidoux. Initially, a court investigator introduced them to the judge handling the custody case of the Attleboro sect, called The Body.
The sect rejects modern medicine. Ms. Robidoux withheld solid food from their son, Samuel, after another member of the group told them she received a message from God.
Samuel died in 1999, shortly before his first birthday. Jacques Robidoux was convicted of first-degree murder in 2002 and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The Pardons were given access to group members and journals, and their review led to the removal of 13 sect children from their parents' custody.
Mr. Pardon later was called as an expert witness for Karen Robidoux's murder defense, but he never testified.
The high-profile case might clarify the mission of MeadowHaven in the eyes of Lakeville neighbors. Some objected to the center's opening, saying they were afraid of having drug addicts or "crazy people" in the neighborhood.
"People were acting like Charles Manson was going to be here. We were considering selling the place," Ms. Pardon said. The center opened about 18 months ago.
The Pardons are devout Christians. They say they do not impose their faith on the people they treat, although the center's Web site says, "Christian love and care will undergird programs of spiritual restoration, emotional healing and acquiring life skills."
They also are involved in MeadowHaven's parent organization, the New England Institute of Religious Research,which studies "aberrant" religious groups that they believe twist Christianity.
On their list of such groups is Mormonism, the religion of Gov. Mitt Romney.
"From a Christian perspective, that's not a Christian church," Mr. Pardon said. But he said not all of the aberrant groups are destructive enough to be dubbed "cults."
Mr. Pardon is a minister who served as pastor of the First Congregational Church in Middleboro from 1977-84. Ms. Pardon holds a master's degree in psychology.
The center has two counselors who live there full time. The Pardons live in New Bedford.
As Ms. Robidoux progresses through treatment, Mr. Pardon said, the counselors will help her understand the cult experience and make peace with her past.
It can be painful for ex-cult members to explain their history to friends, to new romantic partners and to themselves.
"In their private moments, when they think, 'Why didn't I do something?' -- they've got to have answers that make sense," he said.
MeadowHaven and the New England Institute of Religious Research maintain extensive Web sites at meadowhaven.org and neirr.org.