April 10, 2009
BY ANDY DAVIS
The Tony Alamo Christian Ministries and two of its members sued the Arkansas Department of Human Services in federal court Thursday, saying the department has “engaged in a systematic, persistent and continuous campaign of harassment and intimidation against the church.”
The suit in U.S. District Court in Texarkana cites the removal of 36 children from the ministry and requirements that their parents move off church property and find jobs outside the ministry to regain custody. The department says the children are endangered by practices that include underage marriages and beatings for violations of church rules. It is continuing to search for 92 other children believed at risk.
As a result of the department’s actions, “all parents with children under the age of eighteen… fled from the church and are now in hiding and living like fugitives,” the lawsuit says. “They live in constant fear that the next knock on the door will begin the tortuous ordeal of having to get their children back from the state of Arkansas.”
With its membership scattered, the lawsuit says, the ministry has stopped holding services in Fouke and Fort Smith, has a backlog of 1,500 requests for cassette tapes of sermons by its pastor, Tony Alamo, and has few people to send out across the country to distribute the ministry’s signature religious pamphlets.
“The state’s policies and practices have effectively disbanded an entire church by using the pretext of a child abuse investigation,” the lawsuit says. It claims the department’s actions violate the parents’ religious freedoms.
Human Services Department spokesman Julie Munsell said the department isn’t concerned with the parents’ religious beliefs – as long as they don’t endanger the children.
“The driving force behind our decisions as it relates to these children is the children’s safety,” Munsell said. “The other environmental factors within their lives are only relevant to us as it relates to their safety, and at the point at which the practices and the culture of the ministry begins to threaten the safety of the children, we are obligated by our mission to get involved.”
The lawsuit asks for an order preventing the department from taking any more ministry children and preventing the department from “deprogramming” the ones already in foster care. It also asks that the department petition judges in Miller County to amend the case plans of the children in foster care so that the parents are no longer required to sever some of their ties from the ministry.
The lawsuit was filed by attorney Phillip E. Kuhn of Lakeland, Fla., on behalf of the ministry and members Bert Krantz and Greg Seago, each of whom live in Fouke and have children who have been placed in foster care.
Kuhn is the lead attorney for a group known as CPS Watch Legal Team, which sent a news release to media outlets announcing the lawsuit. A partnership between the nonprofit groups Families Best Interest of Stuart, Fla., and CPS Watch, of Branson, the team was formed about two years ago to ensure that the rights of parents are protected in child-welfare cases, said Desere Howard, director of Families Best Interest and the legal team coordinator. She said the team is especially interested in mass removals of children, such as the removal of more than 400 children from a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints ranch near El Dorado, Texas, in March 2008, and the removal of 115 children from the Heartland Christian Academy boarding school in northeast Missouri in 2001.
Alamo ministries members contacted the group about a month ago asking for help, said CPS Watch founder Cheryl Barnes.
“We’re not trying to allow child abuse or anything like that,” Barnes said. “We just want the state agencies to follow established laws and procedures.”
The lawsuit claims that the children have been scattered in foster homes across the state, with one set of parents having to drive 500 miles to visit each of their six children. Meanwhile, the children are allowed to watch television shows and listen to radio programs they wouldn’t have been exposed to in the ministry, the lawsuit says.
The foster parents “go to great lengths to mainstream the children into a worldly society that the parents oppose,” the lawsuit says. “They are placed in homes where the adults smoke, and the parents believe this is injurious to the children’s health. The children are exposed daily to all the trash that is spewed endlessly over the airwaves of modern television and radio America.”
Munsell said the department tries to disrupt children’s lives as little as possible but also has to consider the customs of the foster families that are available. She added that, in some cases, children are placed in foster homes far from their biological parents because those are the only homes available or because of a risk that the biological parents would flee with their children if they lived nearby.
Not all of the children taken into custody are alleged to have been abused, but the Human Services Department contends that the ministry’s practices, including allowing underage marriages and administering severe beatings, put all the children at risk.
Alamo, 74, is in jail awaiting trial on charges that he transported five underage girls across state lines for sex over the past 15 years.
The lawsuit argues that the department’s contention is too broad. It notes that several women in the ministry are now pregnant and claims Human Services officials “constantly ask each of these women the date they are due to give birth.”
“The women have been advised by employees of the Department that the Department plans to take custody of the child at birth,” the lawsuit says. “The Department’s attempt to make decisions on a fetus not yet born is a gross abuse of authority.”
Munsell said she couldn’t say whether the children will be placed in foster care when they are born.
“We will take each issue that emerges that changes the family situation in some way, and we will deal with those on an individual basis,” she said.