TEXARKANA — On the second day of a hearing on the custody status of children removed from the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, a judge warned participants to abide by his gag order and kicked two members of an advocacy group out of the courthouse.
Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin has ordered attorneys, parents and others involved in the child welfare proceedings not to speak to reporters about the case. Cheryl Barnes, who is assisting the parents with their cases, had provided reporters with some information.
On Thursday, Barnes said, she was told that she and Desere Howard, who are members of the parent advocacy group CPS Watch Legal Team, would no longer be allowed in the Juvenile Court Center in Texarkana. Previously, Barnes and Howard had been allowed to sit in a waiting room outside the courtroom. Reporters have not been allowed in the building.
Barnes said she believes that the public should know what is happening in the cases. She noted that child welfare proceedings in several states, including Missouri and Florida, are open to the public.
“To take the gag order to such a degree as to keep the public from knowing any-thing about what’s going on only protects the judge” and the Arkansas Department of Human Services, Barnes said. “It doesn’t protect the children.”
Griffin has briefed reporters on previous hearings, but his assistant has said that the judge will have no comment on this week’s hearings.
The hearings concern at least 17 children, from six families, who were taken into protective custody in 2008, Barnes said. The hearings began Wednesday and had originally been scheduled to conclude Thursday, but Griffin decided to extend them an additional day. Testimony on Thursday ended about 5:45 p.m. The hearings are expected to resume this morning.
Barnes said Griffin was expected to hear arguments from the Human Services Department that the parental rights of five sets of parents should be terminated because the parents have failed to comply with orders that they move off church property and find jobs outside the ministry. Griffin was also expected to review the status of another family’s case but was not expected to rule on whether the parents’ rights should be terminated, Barnes said.
Earlier this week Barnes said the hearings concerned the parental rights of four sets of parents, but she said she learned Thursday that an additional family was scheduled for a hearing on whether the parents’ rights should be terminated.
One set of parents failed to show up for a hearing Thursday, Barnes said. Carlos and Sophia Parrish of Fouke had been scheduled for a hearing on whether the rights should be terminated with respect to four children, ages 2-8, who are in foster care.
Sophia Parrish gave birth to another child, a boy, last June. The Human Services Department has filed a petition asking Griffin to take action to protect the boy, and the Parrishes, who have not yet been served with the petition, are afraid that the boy will be taken from them and placed in foster care, Barnes said.
Carlos Parrish attended the first day of the hearings Wednesday but was not at the courts building when his name was called Thursday, Barnes said. The Parrishes also did not show up for a scheduled hearing in October.
Barnes said Griffin planned to wait until all the cases were heard before ruling on whether any parental rights should be terminated. It was unclear whether Griffin would issue a ruling today or take the matter under advisement.
Since a raid on the evangelist ministry’s compound in Fouke in September 2008, 36 children have been removed from their homes in the ministry and placed in foster care. Tony Alamo, the ministry’s 75-year-old leader, was sentenced in November to 175 years in prison after being convicted of taking five underage girls across state lines for sex.
Judges in Miller County have ruled that the children were endangered by ministry practices that included allowing underage girls to marry and punishing misbehavior with beatings. The judges have said the parents can eventually be reunited with their children but only if the parents establish financial independence from the ministry.
The parents argue that the orders violate their religious freedoms. In November 2009, the Arkansas Court of Appeals upheld the removal of five of the children but did not rule on the religious freedom issue because it had not been raised at the trial level. Several other appeals are pending.
Arkansas, Pages 11 on 01/29/2010