Gag order tight at church kids hearing

Testimony in 2nd day on 9 taken from Alamo ministry in ’08 traffic stop

— On the second day of hearings on the custody status of children who were removed from the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, a judge admonished attorneys, witnesses and other to abide by his gag order, which bars participants from commenting on the proceedings.

As a result, little information about what happened during the proceedings was available when the hearing ended at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday. Proceedings in child-welfare cases are closed to the public.

The hearing concerned the long-term placement goals for nine children who were taken into protective custody during a Nov. 18 traffic stop on Arkansas 245 in Texarkana.

Six of the children belong to Bert and Mirriam Krantz, who live at the ministry complex in Fouke. The other three children, all boys, belong to Bethany Myers, also of Fouke. Myers also has three daughters who are believed to be in hiding with her husband, Jim.

The children are among 17 ministry children who are the subject of custody hearings this week before Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin. A sheriff’s deputy said late Tuesday that Griffin would have no comment on the proceedings. The parents’ attorney, Phillip Kuhn of Lakeland, Fla., also declined to comment, citing the gag order.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services, which has placed a total of 36 ministry children in foster care, contends that thechildren are endangered by practices that include allowing underage marriages and punishing misbehavior with beatings. Tony Alamo, the ministry’s 75-year-old leader, was convicted in July of taking five underage girls across state lines for sex and is in jail awaiting a sentencing hearing on Nov. 13.

At hearings in November and January, judges in Miller County ruled that ministry parents could eventually be reunited with their children, but only if the parents moved off church property and found jobs outside the ministry. None of the parents whose children have hearings this week have complied with those conditions, Cheryl Barnes, a litigation specialist for the group CPS Watch Legal Team, has said. The Florida-based group, which advocates for the rights of parents who have children in foster care,is assisting the ministry parents with their cases.

Bert Krantz, whose six children range in age from 2 to about 13, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by CPS Watch Legal Team claiming that the Human Services Department has infringed on the parents’ religious freedoms. The department has denied any discrimination and has asked for the suit to be dismissed.

Mirriam Krantz’s mother, Dana Minnabarriet, has asked for her grandchildren to be placed in her custody, but the Human Services Department has recommended that her request be denied, citing her lack of financial resources and her support for the ministry.

Bethany Myers, whose three sons in foster care range in age from about 6 to 16, spent eight months in jail after Griffin held her in contempt of court in January for refusing to provide information on the whereabouts of her daughters. Griffin ordered Myers released in August, saying her sentence had been served.

On Monday, Griffin heard recommendations from the Human Services Department that he make three boys available for adoption by terminating the parental rights of their parents, an advocate for the parents has said.

Griffin also was expected to hear arguments this week on what the long-term goal should be for the four children of church members Carlos and Sophia Parrish. He was also expected consider a petition by the Human Services Department asking him to take action to protect a fifth child, born to the couple in June, who remains in the Parrishes’ care.

Barnes described some of what happened in court after the hearings Monday, but said she did not have any information about what happened Tuesday.

On Monday, a half-dozen protesters who support the ministry stood outside the court building as a steady rain smeared the ink on their hand-lettered signs. They returned Tuesday with freshly made signs, including ones saying, “Free the Hostaged Alamo Children!” and “DHS has stolen kids.”

Carol Broderick, 57, wore a black T-shirt with the ministry’s bejeweled cross logo as she held a sign saying “Slander Works.” Her brother-inlaw has three children who were placed in foster care. At a hearing last month, Griffin awarded custody of the children to their aunt, a former ministry member who lives in West Virginia.

“They’re telling them they have to make a choice between God and their kids,” said Carol Broderick, who lives in the Fort Smith area. “That’s not a choice to give anybody.”

Arkansas, Pages 13 on 10/28/2009