TEXARKANA A day after a couple who belong to the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries failed to show up for a hearing on the custody status of their children, including a 4-month-old boy, an advocate for the parents said in an interview that she has not heard from the parents and has no idea where they are.
Cheryl Barnes, litigation specialist for the advocacy group CPS Watch Legal Team, said she had urged the parents to show up for Tuesday’s hearing in Miller County Circuit Court. She said she doesn’t know why they didn’t show up, but added that they were afraid that the Arkansas Department of Human Services would take custody of their son who was born in June.
“They don’t trust the judge or the system to do what they’re supposed to do, and they want to protect their baby,” Barnes said.
Carlos and Sophia Parrish, both lifelong members of the ministry who lived at its compound in Fouke, have four children who were placed in foster care in November after they were taken into custody during a traffic stop in Texarkana on Nov. 18. At the time, the children ranged in age from 1 to 7.
After Sophia Parrish gave birth to another child on June 18, Human Services Department caseworkers initially allowed the couple to keep the baby. Then, on Sept. 18, the department filed a petition asking Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin to take action to protect the child, citing the Parrishes’ lack of progress in complying with Griffin’s orders that they move off of church property and find jobs outside the ministry.
The petition did not specify what action the department wanted Griffin to take, but an attached affidavit described it as a “petition for change of custody.”
Human Services Department spokesman Julie Munsell said that, when parents with a child under the department’s supervision drop out of contact, “it almost always leads to a lot of concern for the safety of the child.”
In such cases, the department can ask for an emergency order allowing it to take a child into custody. The department could also notify law enforcement agencies and ask for assistance locating the child, she said.
Munsell said she couldn’t comment on the specifics of the Parrish case because of a gag order and laws requiring proceedings in child welfare cases to be kept confidential. Munsell did say, however, that the number of ministry children in the department’s care had not changed in the past few days.
Asked if the Arkansas State Police had been notified of any efforts to locate the baby, spokesman Bill Sadler said late Wednesday that “we have not been advised of any court order that we would need to pick up a child.”
Miller County Sheriff Ron Stovall also said Wednesday afternoon that he had not been notified of any efforts to locate the Parrishes’ baby. A church member at the Fouke compound said Wednesday afternoon that the Parrishes were not there.
The Parrishes’ attorney, Phillip Kuhn of Lakeland, Fla., declined to comment Wednesday, citing the gag order. Griffin did not return a call seeking comment.
Since federal and state authorities raided the ministry’s compound in Fouke on Sept. 20, 2008, a total of 36 ministry children have been placed in foster care. Tony Alamo, the ministry’s 75-year-old leader, was convicted in July of transporting five underage girls across state lines for sex and is in jail awaiting a Nov. 13 sentencing hearing.
The Parrishes’ children were among 17 ministry children from five families who were scheduled to have hearings Monday and Tuesday on the long-term plans for the children’s custody arrangements.
Griffin has issued orders requiring all the parents who belong to the ministry to move off church property and find jobs outside the ministry, but none of the parents have complied, Barnes said. As a result, Barnes said, the department was expected to recommend that the parental rights of the Parrishes and most, if not all, of the other parents be terminated and the children be put up for adoption.