The Randolph hairstylist said her two young children — a 5-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy — had been behaving badly “due to evil spirits,” so last month she took them to two sisters who she claimed could cast out the demons.
During a five-day period in an East Bridgewater apartment, according to police documents, one of the sisters threatened to cut off the boy’s head. They allegedly blew fire into the girl’s face, burning her and inflicting permanent disfigurement. And on two occasions, the sisters and the girl’s mother held her down, and used a sharp object resembling a needle to cut her arm and collarbone area.
Police charged the women with abusing the children but the sisters said they were practicing their religion, Haitian voodoo.
The case has caught the attention of Haitian voodoo practitioners and academics, who say that voodoo — rooted in the African diaspora, sometimes spelled as vodou — does not condone violence.
“This is not voodoo,’’ said Marie “Maude” Evans, a chief voodoo priestess from Mattapan. “Voodoo is about physical healing, mental healing. It’s a way of life.”
Peggy Lee LaBossiere, 51, and her sister, Rachel Hilaire, 40, of East Bridgewater, were arraigned Monday in Brockton District Court on a range of charges, including assault and battery on a child, and ordered held without bail.
The children’s mother, Rachelle Eddins, was sent to Brockton Hospital for an evaluation and then to Pembroke Hospital for mental health treatment. She told police that she’s “of Haitian descent and believes in voodoo,” the police report said.
Kyrah Malika Daniels, a Boston College assistant professor who specializes in African and African diaspora studies, said in an e-mail that Haitian voodoo is a vital part of Haitian culture.
While she said she is not familiar with the “manner of ritual activity” in the Haitian voodoo noted in the Bridgewater case, she said it is common for devotees to cleanse their children in ritual healing baths to help them with challenges that may be “physical or psycho-social.”
“No religious tradition, especially Vodou, would encourage behavior to put one’s children in danger, and this is a grave and serious matter,’’ Daniels said. “Whatever the court’s decision is with regards to the women accused, the tradition of Vodou should not be placed on trial.”
According to a police report, East Bridgewater police discovered the injured children in mid-January when they responded to a call from relatives to conduct a health and welfare check on Eddins and the children. Police went to the apartment that LaBossiere and Hilaire shared on West Union Street, where the family said Eddins was possibly staying. The police report did not say why authorities were told to go to the apartment.
Officers found the girl with a large burn across her face that was beginning to heal, indicating that it was not an immediate injury, the report said.
Eddins told one of the officers that her daughter woke up a few days earlier with the burn marks on her face. But she later told another officer that the burn was caused by a demon leaving the girl’s body. Her children had been misbehaving “due to evil spirits,” so she and they say prayers and use water and oils “to make the demon leave,” the report said.
But the children told the officers they had been through a harrowing ordeal.
The girl told police her mother had taken both children to LaBossiere’s apartment, where they stayed for about five days. While there, LaBossiere threatened to cut her brother’s head off with a large knife or machete, and repeatedly tied her down, binding her feet together and affixing her hands to a long stick above her head, the report said.
With Eddins and Hilaire holding her down, the girl told police, LaBossiere moved around her face “like a snake” and cut her arm and collar area with a sharp object “so that she bled.”
The girl said LaBossiere put water and a lemony substance in her eyes and the mixture induced “a cold and nasty feeling and that it hurt.” The girl said she was left like this until her mother returned from work that day, the police report said.
Her 8-year-old brother told police that LaBossiere held a flaming stick over his sister and blew the fire over her face, officials said. The boy reported his sister was tied up with a hard string and was “crying when this took place,” the report said.
He said he woke up one morning to find his sister with her eye swollen shut and burns on her face, according to the report.
The boy also told officers that LaBossiere allegedly covered his body with a plant-like substance while touching his genitals, according to the report. Hilaire was present during that assault, the report said. LaBossiere then held a long stick to his throat, making it difficult for him to breathe, the boy said.
The report said LaBossiere admitted that she and Hilaire had “performed cleansing baths” on the girl using frankincense, eucalyptus oils, and sea salts, and burning myrrh “while praying.” She denied cutting the girl.
“She further stated that they have performed this for friends and family members in the past and that children are susceptible to the burning when an evil spirit leaves the body,” the report said.
LaBossiere said she performed similar acts on the boy but denied threatening him with a knife, putting a stick to his throat, or applying anything to his genitals, court records show.
Hilaire told police that she and her sister gave cleansing baths to both children and to Eddins, at Eddins’s request. Hilaire provided investigators with two bottles of fragrant oils that were used and claimed the sisters had applied only water, the oils, and sea salt to the children, officials said.
One officer noted in the report that a message visible on the bottles that Hilaire provided warned: “Not for consumption. Avoid contact with eyes, skin, or open flame. Keep out of reach of children.”
LaBossiere and Hilaire face charges of mayhem, assault and battery on a child causing injury, indecent assault and battery on a child under 14, and threatening to commit a crime, according to legal filings and published reports.
Police convinced Eddins to go to the hospital, as her behavior seemed erratic, they said.
Attempts to reach their lawyers for comment were unsuccessful.
The state Department of Children and Families took emergency custody of the children, a spokeswoman said Friday.
A doctor at Brockton Hospital told police that the girl’s facial “disfigurement will be permanent,” a court filing said.
Linen Pierre-Jerome, a Haitian voodoo practitioner who lives in Randolph, was shocked when she heard about the case.
The voodoo she practices is “not done to hurt people,’’ she said.