10/28/09 – TG: Tony Alamo followers no-show for custody hearing for children

Texarkana Gazette
October 28, 2009
By: Lynn LaRowe

Tony Alamo followers no-show for custody hearing for children

The parents in one family scheduled for custody hearings concerning children of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries members didn’t show for court Tuesday, a court official said.

Although the hearings that began Monday and ended Tuesday for five families were closed, noticeably missing coming or going from the Miller County Juvenile Justice Center in downtown Texarkana were the parents of four children taken last November.

At previous hearings, the couple was easy to spot because of the baby carrier they had with them. Nestled inside was their most recent addition, a baby boy born in June and the first known birth to ministry loyalists since the Arkansas Department of Human Services began removing children amid allegations of abuse and neglect in September 2008.

DHS filed a petition to remove the 4-month-old boy on Sept. 18. A hearing to address the petition and the custody of the couple’s older four children, a boy age 7 and girls ages 5, 3 and 1, was scheduled for Tuesday before Circuit Judge Joe Griffin.

Adults associated with the other four families were observed entering or leaving the courthouse Monday or Tuesday.

The names of the parents are being withheld to protect the identities of the juveniles.

In a filing connected to a civil lawsuit filed in April on behalf of the ministry and two fathers with children in foster care, Florida attorney Phillip Kuhn pointed out the infant has been left in his parents’ care since birth and has been seen by DHS staff weekly during the parents’ supervised visits with their other children.

Kuhn wrote that the “solitary ground given is that the parties have not secured employment and housing separate from the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries,” and their status hasn’t changed since their son’s birth in June.

The document also notes the bond between babies and mothers and the harm that a separation can cause.

“It’s critical infants be with their mothers unless harm is imminent,” said Jenny Jones, a licensed clinical social worker from Stuart, Fla., whose work focuses on attachment disorders in the very young. “In the first two years of life there is an incredible amount of brain development going on that is dependent on the parent/child bond.”

Disrupting the bond can lead to sometimes severe difficulty with relationships, anger management and other behaviors, Jones said.

Kuhn, who represents the Alamo devotees with children in state care, cannot comment specifically about the cases because of a gag order.

Reunification plans approved by circuit judges overseeing the juvenile court proceedings don’t require parents to quit attending religious services but do direct them to move off ministry property and find jobs that will allow them to support their families without dependence on the controversial group.

But the parents, who labor as “volunteers” for the ministry in exchange for living quarters, food and necessities, complain that compliance with the court means choosing between their children and their church.

In July, Tony Alamo was convicted of all 10 counts in a federal indictment accusing him of bringing young girls he’d wed across state lines for sex. During Alamo’s criminal trial, in court documents and in hearings held for related cases, assertions surfaced repeatedly that followers allowed their children to be beaten with boards and permitted the cessation of schooling when laborers were needed.

DHS Communications Director Julie Munsell said the absence of parents at “permanency hearings” could lead to a recommendation by the agency that the parents’ rights be terminated.

When a child has been in state care for 12 months, the court must address a permanent placement though such doesn’t necessarily mean a parent’s rights will be terminated or that they’ll no longer be permitted visitation, Munsell said.

Once DHS receives court approval to proceed with the termination of parental rights, a “TPR” hearing must occur within 90 days, Munsell said.

Ordinarily, when a parent’s rights are terminated, contact with the child ceases.

“Throughout the process each step is, do they go home or do they stay. At the end things spider web and there are a number of different things that could happen. They could go home, they could be placed with a relative, there could be a termination of rights or a combination of things,” Munsell said. “It will probably be January before we have any final outcomes on these cases.”

In: 2009 - (Trial year)

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