MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- They often promise peace and salvation, but experts warn of the dangers of cults.
It's estimated that there are dozens of cults in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and as many as 5,000 in the country. Now, a new treatment center will offer a place for members to find a way out.
WCCO traveled to Shawano, Wisconsin to hear the plans in one city with cult connections in the past.
Located 250 miles straight east of the Twin Cities, the city of 9,000 could soon be home to a hidden population.
"A lot of people who leave cults have nowhere else to go," Jay Howard said.
Howard has studied cults for 40 years. His latest project has put him in Shawano with a plan to convert an old boarding house into a live-in cult recovery center.
"They're abused physically, emotionally, financially. Every day you can be abused; cult leaders abuse their people," Howard said.
The area knows the realities well. A man named Rama Behera settled in Shawano in the early 1970s.
WCCO featured his story in 1980. Behera once had several hundred followers. Many who left said he would direct them how to live their lives -- from who to marry to which cars to drive.
Behera also bought several businesses in town, some of which are still operated by what's left of the group today.
"The town knows about some of this stuff but they haven't paid much attention to it," Howard said.
Howard also held a town hall meeting, teaching people how to protect their families from joining cults. He said young people are often targeted at vulnerable periods in their lives.
One mother drove for hours to hear the message. She asked WCCO to conceal her identity as she is still trying to get her daughter back from a cult in a different state.
"If there's a way we can help another family avoid the pain we have gone through," she said. "I can't tell you how hard it's been. I didn't know it was possible to know emotional pain was literal physical pain."
She says it all started when her daughter heard a speaker at their church. It evolved into flattering phone calls and text messages, until months later she moved away.
"All of a sudden she was gone and she hasn't been back," she said.
Bob Pardon and his wife have operated MeadowHaven in Massachusetts for the past 16 years. It's the only long-term facility for people who come out of cults in the world.
"In leaving, you're not just leaving this group you're leaving 'God.' It's extremely difficult," Pardon said. "It's like someone coming out of ISIS and going to your regular therapist to try to get healed. That does not work."
Pardon is in the process of closing. After helping hundreds of former cult members start new lives, he says the work has taken a toll.
"Mothers who murder their children, a lot of human trafficking in the name of God," Pardon said.
It's why Jay Howard believes it's time to open MeadowHaven Midwest -- to continue their work.
"I've heard all of the horror stories," Howard said.
It is expected to be a free facility for those who are ready to break free. Jay Howard says it takes about a year for a former cult member to be deprogrammed.
Rama Behera, who previously lived in Shawano, has changed his name and lives on the east coast. He did not return WCCO's calls for comment.
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