TEXARKANA An advocate for members of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries called a judge’s decision to sever the parental rights of several of those members a “tragedy” and said Saturday that the parents plan to appeal.
“The way to deal with a perpetrator like Tony Alamo is to go after the perpetrator,” said Cheryl Barnes, litigation specialist for the parent advocacy group CPS Watch Legal Team, which assisted the parents with their cases in Miller County Circuit Court. “After that was done, there really wasn’t a need to take all these kids away from their parents.”
Mary Coker, founder of the anti-Alamo group Partnered Against Cult Activity, countered that severing the parents’ rights could give the children a chance at a “normal life.” She noted that authorities have said tha teven behind bars, Alamo is likely to have influence over the church’s members.
The parents have “shown that they’re going to follow his teachings, and his teachings are what got them into this,” Coker said.
The decision by Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin to sever the parents’ rights came after a three-dayhearing at the Juvenile Court Center in Texarkana. Officials with the Arkansas Department of Human Services had recommended that the rights be severed, saying the parents had made no progress in complying with orders that they move off ministry property and find jobs outside the ministry.
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The rulings affected 13 children, ages 2-14, from four families. The parents were the first, as a result of an investigation into physical and sexual abuse within the ministry, to lose their legal rights with respect to their children.
Severing the parents’ rights clears the children to be put up for adoption. But Julie Munsell, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, said the department typically wouldn’t make a child available for adoption until any pending appeals are resolved.An exception is when the child is in the care of a relative, who can then choose a “high-risk” adoption, with the understanding that the adoption could be dissolved if the appeal is successful.
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Children ages 10 and up must give their consent to be adopted, but a judge can overrule the children’s wishes, Munsell said.
After the hearings in Texarkana ended, shortly after 9 p.m. Friday, the parents hurried away from the court building, declining to comment. One mother, Mirriam Krantz, sobbed, clutching her husband’s arm as he led her away.
The proceedings were closed to the public, and Griffin has issued a gag order barring parents, attorneys and others from speaking with reporters about the case.
A sheriff’s deputy said Friday night that Griffin would have no comment on his ruling. A man who answered the door at the ministry complex in Fouke, about 15 miles south of Texarkana, said members of the church also would have no comment.
The children were takeninto custody in Fouke and Texarkana in September and November 2008 amid an investigation into allegations of physical and sexual abuse.
Alamo, the ministry’s 75-year-old leader, was sentenced to 175 years in prison in November 2009 after being convicted of taking five underage girls across state lines for sex.
Alamo hasn’t been formally accused of abusing any of the children who are now in foster care, but authorities say some of the girls had been living with him at his house in Fouke along with women Alamo had taken as “wives.”
Authorities also say Alamo ordered some of the children now in foster care to be beaten or put on fasts for violating church rules. Other children were deemed to be at risk because of the ministry’s practices, including allowing girls as young as 12 to marry. Mostof the parents weren’t accused of abusing their children but were found to have failed to adequately protect and supervise them.
Judges in Miller County ruled in 2008 and 2009 that the parents could eventually be reunited with their children but only if the parents moved off church property and found jobs outside the ministry.
The parents whose rights were terminated Friday are:
Bert and Mirriam Krantz, whose six children range in ages from 2-13.
Greg Seago and Gina Howard. Seago is a ministry member, but Howard left the church in 1999. Griffin terminated the parental rights of Seago and Howard with respect to their two sons, ages 10 and 14.Seago and Howard also have a 15-year-old daughter who was removed from Alamo’s house during the September 2008 raid. The Human Services Department has recommended that she remain in foster careand receive help with her educational expenses and establishing independence.
Alphonso Reid. Griffin terminated Reid’s parental rights with respect to his 11-yearold daughter. Reid also has a son, age 17, in foster care, and a daughter who turned 18 last year while in foster care. The children’s mother left the church in 2004. It was unknown whether she attended the hearings or whether her rights were severed.
Carlos and Sophia Parrish, whose four children in foster care range in ages from 2-8. Sophia Parrish gave birth to another child, a boy, last June. Fearing that the Human Services Department would take the baby into foster care, the Parrishes skipped court hearings in October and weren’t in court for their termination of parental rights hearing last week.
In a petition asking Griffin to terminate the Parrishes’ parental rights, the Human Services Department said the Parrishes “apparently abandoned [their children in foster care] in that they have had no contact with them for three months and their whereabouts are currently unknown.”
The children who were the subject of last week’s hearings are among 36 removed from the ministry and placed in foster care.
While some parents have complied with the orders requiring them to establish financial independence with the ministry, others say the orders infringe on their religious freedoms.
In November 2009, the Arkansas Court of Appeals upheld the removal of five of the children, all girls. However, the court did not rule on the parents’ constitutional argument because it said the parents didn’t raise the issue at the trial level.
Several other appeals are pending, and the ministry has challenged the removals in a lawsuit in federal court. The Human Services Department has asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed.
In last week’s hearing, the Human Services Department also asked Griffin to terminatethe rights of another couple, Jim and Bethany Myers, but Griffin gave the Myerses additional time to comply with his orders, Barnes said.
The ministry members have been allowed weekly visits with their children in foster care. Once a parent’s rights are terminated, however, the parent does have visitation rights, and the department typically doesn’t recommend that any contact be allowed, Munsell said.
Barnes said the parents were told that if their rights were severed, they would have a final “goodbye visit” with their children and then wouldn’t be allowed any further contact.
Barnes said Griffin could have fashioned a less-severe remedy to protect the children. For instance, she said, he could have assigned guardianship to a relative, an option that would have allowed the parents to visit their children and eventually petition for custody.
If the ministry is truly a cult, Barnes said, “it’s unreasonable to expect the parents to break away from that in 12 months’ time.”
But Munsell said that after a child has been in foster care for more than a year, it’s important to establish a permanent living situation and give the child a new family. Contact with parents who have been abusive or neglectful can often be detrimental, she said.
“You want the child to be able to heal from what’s occurred to them, then move on,” Munsell said.
If a child is adopted by someone outside the family, she said, the biological parent would typically not have any information about the children’s whereabouts. On the other hand, a relative could also petition for custody or to adopt the child. In that case, it would be up to the relative whether to allow contact with the biological parent, Munsell said.
“Some kids always want to return home, even if they were being abused and neglected,” Munsell said. Others, she said, want “a fresh start, because there’s been so much trauma in the past.”