9/02/09 – TG: Custody battle continues for Alamo followers

Texarkana Gazette
September 2, 2009
By: Lynn LaRowe

Custody battle continues for Alamo followers

Custody hearings concerning three families whose children are in foster care because of their parents’ association with Tony Alamo Christian Ministries lasted late into Tuesday evening.

“It was just a very long day,” said Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin, who presided over the hearings. “No parents went to jail and none of the parents’ rights have been terminated.”

Some of the children who were the subject of the hearings were removed from church properties in Fouke, Ark., following a raid nearly a year ago. Others were taken from SUVs in November as they headed toward the Texas border.

The children were taken into the custody of the Arkansas Department of Human Services amid allegations of abuse and neglect.

Because of a gag order issued earlier this year, the parents and their attorneys were unable to comment about the proceedings.

“The mission is that a child not linger in foster care,” said Arkansas DHS communications director Julie Munsell. “In general, after a certain amount of time passes, there do have to be recommendations made about permanency. There has to be a position taken at some point, whether that be reunification or termination of parental rights and a move to permanent placement somewhere else.”

Munsell said the average length of time a child spends in foster care in Arkansas is about two years. She was unable to specifically comment about the children of Alamo loyalists because of Griffin’s court order.

Florida attorney Phillip Kuhn is now representing the parents with children in state care who continue to follow Alamo’s teachings. Kuhn was not able to speak about what transpired Tuesday because of the order as well.

Griffin issued the gag order after confidential videotaped interviews with children and sealed court documents were placed on the Internet by their parents.

Circuit judges in Miller and Sebastian counties have ruled family reunification is possible if the parents acquire employment and housing independent of the controversial ministry. Witnesses who testified during Tony Alamo’s criminal trial alleged children were beaten, forced to fast and didn’t go to school if they were needed to work. Alamo was convicted of bringing young girls across state lines for sex and faces a maximum total sentence of 175 years in federal prison.

Griffin said the court is committed to the plans for reunification established in conjunction with DHS.

“They’ve just got to protect their kids and provide for their health, safety and welfare,” Griffin said. “Employment and residence do continue to be an issue for some.”

If parents are refusing to comply, their rights to their children could eventually be severed.

“If we don’t see any progress toward the reunification plan after a time, we’ll move toward termination, but if there are efforts at compliance being made, the courts and DHS will continue to monitor a case,” Munsell said.

Griffin previously said some of the children have been returned to their parents because they’ve complied with the courts’ orders and DHS care plans.

“We’ve closed the case out on at least one family,” Griffin said. “We sent them home because the parents did everything we asked them to do.”

In: 2009 - (Trial year)

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