TEXARKANA The court proceedings on the custody status of children removed from the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries are entering a new phase this week. Attorneys for the Arkansas Department of Human Services are expected to argue that ministry members’ legal rights with respect to the children should be terminated so the children can be put up for adoption.
At hearings today and Thursday in Miller CountyCircuit Court, attorneys for the Arkansas Department of Human Services are expected to argue that several members of the ministry have made no progress in complying with orders directing them to move off church property and find jobs outside the ministry.
Cheryl Barnes, an advocate for the ministry parents, said the hearings concern 15 children, ages 2-16, from four families. The parents have argued that the orders requiring them to establish financial independence from the ministry violate their religious freedoms, Barnes said.
“Some of them are true believers,” Barnes said. Others, she said, are afraid to leave because they depend on the church for needs such as paying their court-ordered child support and providing them with transportation to visit their children.
“Once they step off from the church, the church is not going to take them back,” said Barnes, a litigation specialist with the group CPS Watch Legal Team, which is assisting the parents in their child welfare cases.
Jodi Burke, an assistant to Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin, said Tuesday that Griffin would have no comment about the proceedings. Also, Griffin has issued a gag order barring attorneys, parents and others from speaking about the cases.
The 15 children were taken into protective custody in a sweep of ministry properties in November 2008. They are among 36 ministry children who have been placed in foster care amid an investigation into allegations of physical and sexual abuse.
Tony Alamo, the ministry’s leader, was convicted in July 2009 of taking five underage girls across state lines for sex. He was sentenced in November to 175 years in prison.
Mark Spellman, a supervising deputy for the U.S. marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, said Alamo is being held at the U.S. Bureau of Prison’s Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City, where he will stay until he is assigned to a prison where he will serve out his sentence.
At Alamo’s trial, his five accusers, now ages 18-31, testified that Alamo had taken them as his “wives” at ages as young as 8, sexually abused them and kept them under his strict control at his house at the compound in Fouke.
Authorities say Alamo has also ordered children to be beaten or placed on fasts for violating church rules and has preached that children are old enough to be married when they reach puberty.
Among the issues expected to be debated at the hearings in Miller County is to what degree Alamo will continue to direct the operations of his church from prison. At his trial, witnesses testified that Alamo remained in charge of the ministry during the four years he spent in prison for a tax evasion conviction in the 1990s.
Barnes said attorneys for the Human Services Department hope to introduce as evidence recent recordings of Alamo giving orders to ministry members over thephone while he was incarcerated in the Bowie County jail in Texarkana, Texas. Phillip Kuhn of Lakeland, Fla., an attorney for the parents, plans to argue that the recordings should not be admitted into evidence because they are hearsay, Barnes said. Kuhn did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment.
Barnes also noted that U.S. Bureau of Prisons policy prohibits inmates from running businesses while in prison. Felicia Ponce, a Bureau of Prisons spokesman, said Tuesday that the policy would also prohibit an inmate from directing the operations of a church.
Citing security concerns, she said she cannot say where Alamo will serve out his time until he has arrived at the prison.
Prosecutors have said they plan to take steps to ensure that Alamo’s communication from prison is monitored. Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Plumlee said Tuesday that prosecutors have sent the Bureau of Prisons information from the trial about Alamo’s activities during his earlier prison stint. The agency can take that information into account when assigning Alamo to a prison and placing restrictions on his communication, Plumlee said.
The children whose hearings are scheduled for today and Thursday are:
Six, ages 2-13, who belong to ministry members Bert and Mirriam Krantz of Fouke.
Four, ages 2-8, who belong to Carlos and Sophia Parrish of Fouke. Sophia Parrish gave birth to another child, a boy, last June. In September, the Human Services Department filed a petition asking Griffin to take action to protect the boy, but the Parrishes did not show up for a scheduled court hearing in October.
Three boys, ages 5, 10 and 16, who belong to ministry members Jim and Bethany Myers of Fouke. Jim Myers is believed to be in hiding with the couple’s three daughters. Last year, Bethany Myers spent more than seven months in jail after Griffin held her in contempt of court for refusing to say where her daughters are.
Two boys, ages 14 and 10, whose parents are Greg Seago of Fouke and Gina Howard of Little Rock. According to an opinion by the Arkansas Court of Appeals, Seago and Howard were married when he was 35 and she was 15. Howard left the ministry in 1999.
Julie Munsell, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, said the department typically seeks to terminate parental rights when parents are not meeting conditions set out by a judge to be reunited with their children.
The move would clear the children to be put up for adoption. Children ages 10 and up must give their consent to be adopted, but a judge can overrule the child’s wishes, Munsell said.
Once a child is adopted by someone outside the child’s biological family, the parents whose rights have been terminated typically do not have access to information about who the adoptive parents are and do not have any visitation rights, Munsell said.
“We want the child to be able to successfully move forward” in establishing a new life with the adoptive family, Munsell said. Citing the gag order, Munsell said she couldn’t comment about the children whose hearings are scheduled this week.
In November 2009, the Court of Appeals upheld the removal of five girls, including Seago’s teenage daughter, from the ministry, citing evidence of beatings, underage marriages, involuntary fasts, inadequate education and poor medical care. The court did not rule on whether the trial judge’s orders requiring the parents to find housing and jobs outside the ministry were constitutional because it said the parents did not raise the argument at the trial level.
Other appeals by parents are pending, and the ministry has filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the Human Services Department of infringing on the parents’ religious freedoms. The department has denied any discrimination and has asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed.
Barnes said that not all of the children who were placed in foster care suffered abuse while they were in the ministry. If the judge terminates the ministry members’ parental rights, the parents will likely appeal, she said.
“It’s so frustrating that people do not see these people as individuals, separate from Tony Alamo,” Barnes said. “They are not the same as Tony.”