By Christina Hager

PLYMOUTH (CBS) — “My name is Carolyn, and I was a former disciple of the Twelve Tribes.” Carolyn Figuera wants the world to know about the religious sect she broke away from. It’s a group that has long battled accusations of being a cult.

“It’s like a lot like a toxic, abusive relationship, the way people are pulled in,” she said. “It’s so similar to just, an emotionally abusive relationship.”

She lived in a commune in Savannah, Georgia. In Massachusetts, Twelve Tribes has properties in Milton, Raynham, Hyannis, and Plymouth, where the group runs a popular café called the Yellow Deli. It’s a Twelve Tribes chain where Figuera worked in her city. She says there’s a lot the public doesn’t see behind the quaint exterior. “They control your logic and your thinking, and they control your money,” she said.

When the I-Team visited the Yellow Deli, there were recruiting materials scattered throughout, including a book called, “A Brand New Culture”. Inside it says, “we don’t make decisions apart.” Figuera said that’s the cornerstone of Twelve Tribes philosophy. “An idea that you came up with on your own, then it’s a sign that it’s from the evil one. It’s from the devil,” she said.

Yellow Deli in Plymouth (WBZ-TV)

FBI documents show Twelve Tribes communes across the country have been targets of federal child abuse investigations, but none has resulted in charges. Several years ago, OSHA looked into a child labor complaint at a Twelve Tribes construction site in Plymouth, but again, there were no fines.

Figuera said hitting children with sticks was a regular practice at her commune: “They’re placed everywhere, so parents can just grab them whenever a kid needs to be disciplined.”

When we asked the community about the accusations, a spokesperson responded. “We aren’t strangers to controversy and many of these allegations are quite old and tired,” said Zahar Racine.

Figuera, who’s Dominican American, also said Twelve Tribes teachings are racist. “Black people need to live a life of slavery or in servitude to white man in order to redeem themselves from their curse,” she said.

Racine denied the allegations. “We continue everyday trying to make a home for the lonely and show God’s love to people of all backgrounds and races.”

Figuera left Twelve Tribes with the help of Lakeville, Massachusetts-based counselors who specialize in helping people break away from religious groups.

“You just want them to have other information so that they can make an informed decision,” said Bob Pardon. He and his wife Judy Pardon founded the New England Institute for Religious Research. They are critics of Twelve Tribes, who say they’ve helped at least 30 members breakaway, most recently in 2017.

“These have a lasting impact that you’ve got to be intentional if you leave that group in order to heal,” said Bob Pardon.

The Pardons are concerned the instability caused by the pandemic leaves people more vulnerable now to being lured into destructive religious groups. Twelve Tribes is one of several groups the I-Team has recently looked into as part of a series on religious sects with local ties.

Christina Hager