1/21/09 – Judge upholds taking of Alamo church kids; The children had been found to be educationally and medically neglected amoung allegations of sexual and physical abuse…
TEXARKANA – A judge on Tuesday upheld the removal of 18 children from the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, saying the children were endangered by the ministry’s history of punishing misbehavior with beatings and of allowing underage marriages.
Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin also ordered a member of the ministry jailed for contempt after she refused to answer questions about images of ministry children that were posted on a Web site.
Griffin issued his ruling on the removal of the children at the end of the seventh day of a hearing on 23 ministry children who were taken into protective custody and placed in foster care in November and December. On Jan. 14, Griffin upheld the removal of five children, all boys who have sisters who were taken into custody in September.
The 18 children whose cases Griffin ruled on Tuesday include eight girls and 10 boys from five families.
None of the children were alleged to have been sexually abused, but they were deemed to be at risk because of a history of underage marriages within the church, Griffin told reporters after the hearing adjourned for the day Tuesday.
“You’ve got allegations that involve children who were married, not these children, but other children that got married under 15 years of age, allegedly some at 12,” Griffin said.
He added that, while the ministry’s leader, Tony Alamo, has said he does not allow underage marriages in the church, he and his followers believe that the Bible says girls are old enough to be married when they reach puberty.
“The consistent testimony is, they still believe marriage is proper when a young lady reaches the age of puberty,” Griffin said. “The number 12 years has been used consistently.
“Of course, if the adult male is 18 or older that had sexual contact with the person, that would be in violation of the law.”
Arkansas Code 5-14-103 defines rape to include having sex with someone younger than 14 if the defendant is more than three years older than the victim. Under Arkansas Code 5-14-127, fourth-degree sexual assault includes someone 20 or older having sex with someone younger than 16.
Griffin said some of the children were also alleged to have been beaten, and others were deemed to be endangered by the church’s practices of administering beatings for violations of church rules.
He said he also found the children had been educationally and medically neglected. He did not elaborate on that finding, but Miller County Circuit Judge Jim Hudson found in an earlier case that ministry children had not received childhood vaccinations and were not taught by certified teachers or registered as homeschooled students.
The hearing was closed to reporters, and Griffin has issued a gag order barring participants from speaking with reporters about the case.
Griffin’s ruling means the 18 children will remain in foster care for the time being, but he did not say whether they can eventually be reunited with their parents or under what conditions. He is expected to approve a plan addressing that issue today.
In previous cases, Griffin and Hudson have ruled that the parents must move off of church property and find jobs outside the ministry if they hope to regain custody of their children.
Since the ministry’s compound in Fouke was raided on Sept. 20, 36 children have been taken into protective custody by the Human Services Department and placed in foster care. The department is still looking for 92 others who are named in a pair of court orders issued in Miller and Sebastian counties as being at risk of abuse.
Alamo, the ministry’s 74-yearold leader, is in jail awaiting a May 18 trial on charges that he transported five girls across state lines for sexual purposes over the past 15 years.
After the hearing adjourned for the day Tuesday evening, Debra Ondrisek of Texarkana, the mother of two children who have been placed in foster care, was escorted by sheriff’s deputies to a patrol car that would take her to the Miller County jail.
Griffin said Ondrisek had refused to answer questions about images of ministry children that were recently posted on the Internet. She will remain in jail until she answers the questions, Griffin said.
Ondrisek joins two other ministry members who have been jailed during the hearing. Don Thorne, 54, of Texarkana, who has a 13-year-old son in foster care, has been in jail since Jan. 13 for refusing to say where his two other children are. Bethany Myers, 35, of Fouke, who has three sons in custody, was jailed Thursday after refusing to disclose the whereabouts of her three daughters.
Griffin has said that Thorne and Myers could remain in jail indefinitely unless they tell him where their children are.
Someone who is willfully disobeying a court order can be held in jail until they comply, said Paula Casey, a professor at the University of Arkansas law school and former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
“The courts generally find that the contemptor holds the key to the jail in his pocket, and he can purge the contempt by providing the information the court is seeking,” Casey said.
But Thorne and Myers would have to be released if the issue becomes moot. That would happen if the children are found or when the children turn 18 and no longer fall under the Human Services Department’s jurisdiction.