11/19/08 – The claims of widespread, consistent physical abuse called the safety of all children living on Ministry properties into question

Texarkana Gazette
November 19, 2008
By: Lynn LaRowe and Jim Williamson

20 more kids seized
17 children removed during traffic stop near Alamo compound in Fouke; 3 taken in courtroom

The Arkansas State Police stopped two Ford sport utility vehicles Tuesday inside the city limits of Texarkana, Ark., as they carried 17 children from the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries compound in Fouke, Ark.

The Arkansas State Police were watching for the two black cars traveling westbound on Loop 245 near the intersection of Arkansas Highway 549 after receiving a tip. Court orders were issued Monday to remove the children living on Alamo properties in Fouke and Fort Smith, Ark.

“The state police received information and were aware the children in the vans were the subject of the court orders. They made the stop based on the knowledge the children were on board the vans,” said Bill Sadler, ASP spokesman.

In all, 11 boys and nine girls were removed, said Julie Munsell, spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Human Services. The children ranged in age up to 17.

Three of the boys, who are brothers, were present in Miller County Juvenile Court when DHS took custody of them. They had just been sworn in to testify as defense witnesses in custody hearings concerning six girls removed from the compound in September.

Sadler declined to address where the children were being taken.

“This has been a DHS operation with the state police present only to ensure no violence would be directed at the DHS or the children,” said Sadler.

The children, who had been living at the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries in Fouke, were the subject of a court order from Miller County Circuit Court Judge Joe Griffin signed about 5:15 p.m. Monday.

State police and the DHS converged on the Fouke compound Tuesday morning, but the children were already loaded in the SUVs and headed toward Texas.

Simultaneously, the Fouke compound and 14 properties belonging to the Tony Alamo Ministries in Fort Smith, Ark., were searched Tuesday, but no children were found, Sadler said.

Sebastian County Circuit Judge Mark Hewett signed the order Monday giving DHS permission to remove children from Alamo properties in Fort Smith, Ark.

The court orders from both counties allege the children were in danger of being physically abused and neglected, Munsell said.

The state police assisted DHS to ensure “safe removal” of the children.

“We had identities on some and locations on others,” Munsell said of the children. “We have shared information with Oklahoma.”

Officials in neighboring states have been notified to watch for the Fort Smith children.

Munsell said DHS acted when it did because of information the agency received.

“We began to see mobilization. We had flight concerns,” Munsell said. “There are still some unknowns. We wanted to exhaust all of our efforts to locate these kids and bring them in so we could protect them.”

DHS doesn’t need a court order to enter a home and interview a child when there are allegations of abuse or neglect. However, the agency did acquire court orders in the case of the 20 children removed Tuesday.

“This time we asked the court first,” Munsell said. “There was a request for a court order seeking guidance.”

The graphic descriptions elicited from former followers in custody hearings and in Alamo’s criminal case likely provided authorities with the evidence needed to acquire the orders.

The testimony of a 14-year-old girl called in the custody hearings described sexual and physical abuse. The physical abuse included alleged Alamo-ordered fasts as discipline for children.

The girl, along with another 18-year-old who no longer belongs to the church, both gave accounts of beatings by Alamo’s alleged enforcer, John Kolbeck. They describled a paddle used to deliver repeated blows was three feet long, six inches wide and an inch thick.

Starvation, as a means of discipline, was also alleged by the two witnesses Monday. The claims of widespread, consistent physical abuse called the safety of all children living on Ministry properties into question. Now that the children have been taken, a court process described under Arkansas’ juvenile code begins.

Within 72 hours of the removal of the children, lawyers with DHS must file a petition for their temporary removal. Within five days of the filing of the petition, probable cause hearings must be conducted to determine if the children should remain in state care or be returned to their families.

If probable cause to keep the kids is determined to exist or if the parents of the children waive such hearings, final “adjudication” hearings must occur within a minimum of 60 days.

When officials removed six girls from the Fouke compound in September, several lawyers from nearby communities were recruited to serve as ad litem attorneys. Each of the girls is appointed their own ad litem to advocate legally for them in court.

With the removal of 20 more children in Miller County, attorneys from areas away from Texarkana may be called upon to serve, Munsell said.

The executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates, is asking the community to volunteer.

“We need 20 volunteers now,” Abernathy said. “It only takes about five or six hours a month to act as the eyes and ears of the court for a child.”

The court system in Miller County may also begin to feel a strain if the cases of the 20 children are separated. Currently, per Griffin’s order, their case is consolidated into one that has been randomly assigned to Griffin’s court.

Three circuit judges serve Miller County. If a need arises, judges from other judicial districts may come to Miller County to assist.

Munsell said DHS can easily send lawyers from all over the state to assist if necessary.

“We may have to do some pooling statewide but we do have the resources to deal with this,” Munsell said.

The local DHS is not overwhelmed by the number of children involved. Munsell pointed out that DHS cares for about 3,500 children daily. In a larger county, such as Pulaski, 60 to 80 children are taken into custody each month.

“This is manageable,” Munsell said of Miller County cases. “We have the resources to deal with this.”

In: 2008 - (Trial year)

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