April 2, 2009
By: Lynn LaRowe
Unlike previous custody hearings concerning the children of followers of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, there were no protesters or throngs of church members on Wednesday gathered outside the Miller County Juvenile Court Center.
But like hearings conducted last month, Circuit Judge Joe Griffin of the 8th Judicial District South declined to answer reporters’ questions about the review hearings for six families.
Review hearings allow a judge to determine how parents with kids in foster care are progressing with plans developed by the Arkansas Department of Human Services. If followed, the plans could lead to family reunification.
In March, Griffin conducted hearings for 12 families. Six of those were the subject of hearings held Wednesday, and the remaining six are scheduled for hearings April 30.
Griffin did allow a member of his court staff to advise reporters that the families whose cases were addressed today won’t be appearing before him again until Sept. 1.
“It’s tough to compare one situation to all cases,” said Julie Munsell, DHS director of communications, when asked why a judge might wait five months before conducting another review hearing.
Munsell said 39 percent of children taken into state custody remain in foster care for more than a year.
A gag order Griffin previously issued prevented the parents or lawyers involved from commenting about the case.
Thirty-six children have been taken into state custody since the Arkansas State Police and FBI raided ministry property Sept. 20, 2008, in Fouke, Ark. Their ages range from just over a year to just short of
The allegations leading to the removals included severe physical abuse, forced fasts, underage marriages, sexual abuse, medical neglect and educational neglect.
At hearings conducted last year where “case plans” were developed, Griffin and Circuit Judge Jim Hudson ruled reunification would be possible only if the parents severed residential, economic and employment ties with the controversial church. Some of the parents whose children have been taken are appealing the rulings.
Previously, both judges appointed the Arkansas Public Defender Commission to represent parents at the appellate level.
But recently, attorney Clay Conrad of Houston agreed to represent six families who are appealing. He said the Arkansas court gave him permission to represent the parents.
“I haven’t yet gotten all of the records or files,” Conrad said. “Until I do there really isn’t much to comment about.”
Conrad previously said he believes the parents are being treated unfairly because they “… don’t go to the right church.”
“They have the right to live the way they want to live,” Conrad said in a prior interview. “That doesn’t make them unfit.”