6/10/09 – TG: Lawyer of Alamo requests hearing to examine evidence

Texarkana Gazette
June 10, 2009
By: Lynn LaRowe

Lawyer of Alamo requests hearing to examine evidence

In a motion filed Tuesday, the lawyer representing Tony Alamo Christian Ministries requests a hearing to examine evidence in a civil suit accusing the Arkansas Department of Human Services of harassment and civil rights violations.

The motion comes just a week after U.S. District Judge Harry Barnes of the Western District of Arkansas issued an order that essentially halted proceedings in the case until the court decides if the church has standing in federal court.

Barnes’ June 2 order meant that Phillip Kuhn, a Florida attorney who filed the suit on behalf of the ministry and two fathers whose children are in foster care, could not collect records from DHS he’d subpoenaed or depose witnesses last week as planned.

In responses to Kuhn’s filings, DHS has described the suit as nothing more than an attempt to get a federal court involved in state custody proceedings. Established legal doctrine usually keeps federal courts out of cases that are already being dealt with at the state level.

A bad-faith violation of civil rights, found in only rare circumstances, is an exception to abstention doctrine.

Kuhn has accused DHS of using a child abuse investigation to disband a controversial church.

Circuit judges presiding over custody matters have ordered Alamo-following parents to sever residential and employment ties with the ministry and end financial dependence on it. Kuhn’s filings in the federal suit allege the parents are being forced to choose between their children and their own salvation.

“The plaintiffs respectfully assert that the attached exhibit clearly shows that the intent and purpose of the defendants was not to protect children, but to get to Tony Alamo and destroy his church,” the motion said. “The raid on the church was carefully planned and orchestrated, not for the purpose of protecting children, but as a direct assault on the church itself.”

Filed under seal with the motion are portions of transcripts from custody hearings held in Miller County Circuit Court last September.

Search warrants on file in Tony Alamo’s pending criminal case indicate the FBI and Arkansas State Police were looking for evidence of child pornography.

“Our only interest is in protecting children from abuse and neglect,” said DHS Communications Director Julie Munsell. “That is the only thing that drives our decision making.”

Kuhn alleges in the motion that the transcript proves DHS was involved in an investigation of the ministry long before properties in Fouke, Ark., were raided by the FBI and ASP on Sept. 20.

“Removal is the last step, not the first,” Munsell said. “We moved when we thought it was safe to do so and we had to work in concert with law enforcement. We removed children we believed were in imminent danger.”

Six girls, ranging in age from 10 to 17, were taken into state custody that night by DHS. Since then, 30 other children have been placed in foster care. Removal orders for more than 125 children were signed in November by circuit judges in Miller and Sebastian counties.

The whereabouts of the other children remain unknown.

“The exhibit reveals that special people were appointed by the Defendant Selig to take into custody all females of the church under the age of 18 at the time of the raid regardless of what conditions were found to exist,” Kuhn said in the June 9 motion.

John Selig is a DHS administrator named as a defendant in the suit.

Munsell said DHS pieces together information before deciding what action to take in a child abuse investigation.

“Suspected abuse is different than imminent risk. We didn’t remove all the children at the time of the raid,” Munsell said. “We have to go through a process, assessing what the risk level is for children. Sometimes information dribbles in.”

Kuhn argues that DHS is guilty of one of two things:

“First, the defendants knew of the alleged abuse for a substantial period of time and did nothing to protect the children for a considerable period of time, or, secondly, the alleged abuse did not rise to the definition of ‘substantial risk of serious harm’ as required by the Ark. statute,” the motion said. “The defendants were either derelict in the performance of their duties or the alleged abuse was a pretext they employed to destroy the church.”

Munsell said the only time a parent’s religion matters in a case of suspected abuse or neglect is when it motivates the concerning behavior.

“We don’t want to remove children from homes unnecessarily,” Munsell said. “We didn’t take all the children at the time of the raid.”

Both the FBI and ASP have previously stated that before the September raid, Alamo and his ministry had been under investigation for about two years.

Alamo, also known as Bernie LaZar Hoffman, will be tried before a jury next month in Barnes’ court for allegedly bringing young girls across state lines for sex.

In: 2009 - (Trial year)

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