1/22/09 – Judge ruled that the parents of 21 children must move off church property and find jobs outside the ministry if they hope to regain custody of their children
TEXARKANA – Citing a history of underage marriages and beatings for violations of church rules, a judge ruled Wednesday that the parents of 21 children removed from the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries must move off church property and find jobs outside the ministry if they hope to regain custody of their children.
Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin issued the rulings on the eighth and final day of a hearing on 23 children who were removed from the ministry in November and December. In rulings last week and Tuesday, he found that the children had been endangered by the church’s practices and had received substandard schooling. Some also had not received childhood vaccinations.
Following the recommendation of the Arkansas Department of Human Services, he ruled last week that two of the children, both boys who have sisters who were taken into custody in September, can be reunited with their parents only if the parents move off church property and gain financial independence. The children will also have to attend schools that have certified teachers. Griffin approved similar plans for the other 21 children Wednesday.
Most of the parents live on church property and work at jobs within the ministry or at churchowned businesses. Their children attend ministry schools, and the church pays for the parents’ food, clothing, housing and medical care.
“The court found that the witnesses for the state were credible witnesses and felt that a lot of the testimony by the respondents was not credible, it was evasive,” Griffin said Wednesday evening, after the hearing adjourned. “The crux of it was I believed the allegations that were made.”
About 30 witnesses testified in the hearing at the Juvenile Court Center in Texarkana. Arkansas State Police troopers helped Miller County sheriff’s deputies stand guard, and the Texarkana Police Department provided patrols around the Juvenile Court Center.
The hearing was closed to the public, and Griffin issued a gag order barring participants from speaking to reporters about the case.
Tony Alamo, the ministry’s 74-year-old leader, is in jail awaiting a May 18 trial on charges that he transported five underage girls across state lines for sex. He and church members have denied that any children were abused.
Throughout most of the hearing, as many as eight church members protested outside the court building, with signs saying “Let Our Children Go,” and “Stop Nazi DHS.” On Tuesday, the number had dwindled to two, and no protesters showed up Wednesday. A call to the church office in Fouke wasn’t immediately returned Wednesday evening.
None of the 23 children was alleged to have been sexually abused, but the ministry was found to have a history of allowing girls as young as 12 to be married, with the most recent wedding occurring at least a year ago. Griffin said church members have consistently testified that they believe the Bible allows girls to be married when they begin menstruating, although they claim that the church nevertheless does not allow girls to marry until they are 18. The underage marriages were performed in the church and were not legally sanctioned, Griffin said.
The judge also found a pattern of “excessive physical abuse that was called paddling.” He said one girl was held down by women while another woman hit her with a board.
In another instance, “one of the young men was hit so many times he bled through his pants, and then there were others that their bodies kept the signs of the beating by bruises or marks and so forth for weeks and up to a month,” Griffin said.
The teachers at the compound in Fouke were not certified by the state, and several of them lacked high school diplomas, Griffin said.
“One of them only finished the sixth grade,” he said. “Many of them didn’t get past the ninth or 10th grade.”
Their students also often didn’t finish high school, Griffin said.
“A majority of those kids never get past the ninth or 10th grade,” Griffin said. “A lot of the young girls historically have gotten married before they finished what would be the 12th grade, and then the boys just simply drop out.”
A hearing to check on the parents’ progress toward meeting the conditions in Griffin’s order was set for March 12.
During the eight-day hearing, Griffin ordered three parents jailed for contempt of court. Two of them, Don Thorne, 54, of Texarkana and Bethany Myers, 35, of Fouke have children placed in foster care but have refused to say where their other children are. Another parent, Debra Ondrisek, was jailed after she refused to answer questions about images of ministry children that were posted on a Web site.
Griffin said the parents will remain in jail until they cooperate.
“I put them on notice that whenever they decided to change their positions as far as answering the questions posed to them in the courtroom, they could notify the court and I’d give them an immediate hearing,” Griffin said.
With Griffin’s rulings, judges have now approved the removal of 30 of the 36 children taken into protective custody and placed in foster care since the ministry’s compound in Fouke was raided on Sept. 20.
Court orders issued in Sebastian and Miller counties in November named 128 children believed to be at risk. The Human Services Department is continuing to search for 92 of them.
As in Wednesday’s ruling, judges said after hearings in November that six girls removed from the Fouke compound in September can eventually be reunited with their parents, but only if the parents sever some of their ties with the ministry. The parents in those cases have said they plan to appeal the rulings.
The 14 boys and nine girls whose hearing concluded Thursday are from nine families and ranged in ages from 16 months to 17 years. Fifteen lived at the Fouke compound, two lived at a house in Texarkana and four lived in the Fort Smith area.
In addition to those children, a boy who was taken into custody in November turned 18 last month and has opted to stay in the fostercare system so the state will help pay his educational expenses. An additional six children were found at a home in Valparaiso, Ind., on Dec. 2. A hearing on their custody status is set for Jan. 30.