11/20/08 – Children in Alamo case still sought

November 20, 2008

Children in Alamo case still sought

TEXARKANA — State child protective services caseworkers spent Wednesday finding foster homes for the 20 children seized from the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries while a search continued for other children who were missed during a sweep of Alamo properties.

The children, 11 boys and nine girls, were taken into protective custody Tuesday after Arkansas State Police officers and Department of Human Services caseworkers went to Alamo’s compound in Fouke and to more than a dozen Alamo-controlled homes and businesses in the Fort Smith area.

No children were found at those places, but 17 were found after police stopped two vans on Arkansas 245 in Texarkana, headed toward the Texas state line. Three brothers, the youngest of whom appeared to be at least 12, were taken into custody at the Juvenile Court Center in Texarkana, where they had been attending a hearing on the custody status of four girls who were taken from the compound after a raid in September.

The children taken into custody Tuesday were all between the ages of 1 and 17 and included other sibling groups, including a set of six siblings who were in the vans, Human Services Department spokesman Julie Munsell said Wednesday. All the children lived at the Fouke compound, she said.

By Wednesday afternoon, all the children’s parents had been identified, and the children were given health screenings and assessments to determine their mental health and educational needs, Munsell said. The children were then placed into foster homes across the state.

“A lot of people have responded and offered to open their homes,” Munsell said.

After the September raid, the department placed sisters in separate foster homes, saying such separations are usually made when housing siblings together would interfere with their treatment or impede an investigation.

This time, Munsell said, the siblings had “a different dynamic” and are being placed in homes together.

She said the children were “generally pretty healthy” and “have been cooperating with their placement.” “We haven’t had any issues with fleeing or running away or that sort of thing,” Munsell said.

The Human Services Department’s Children and Family Services Division will investigate whether the children have been abused or neglected and will forward their findings to a prosecutor for possible charges, Munsell said.

A hearing was set for Monday before Miller County Circuit Judge Kirk Johnson on whether the children should remain in foster care. Johnson could also decide at that hearing whether the parents should be allowed visits. If the children stay in foster homes, further hearings will be scheduled within 30 days.

The Court Appointed Special Advocates program will assign volunteers who will visit each child and make recommendations to the court, said Danita Abernathy, director of the program for southwest Arkansas and northeast Texas. Currently, however, the chapter’s 60 volunteers are all assigned to other cases.

After the children were taken into custody Tuesday, Abernathy issued a plea in the Texarkana Gazette for more people to become volunteers. On Wednesday, she said, “The phone has been ringing all morning” from people wanting to volunteer. She said volunteers must be at least 21, pass a criminal background check and be able to spend five to eight hours a month on a case.

The girls taken during the September raid each have a volunteer but the cases have been time-consuming for the volunteers because the girls are in homes across the state, Abernathy said. “There may be four hours that you’re in a vehicle,” Abernathy said. Munsell said some of the children are being placed in homes away from Miller County for security or because of the availability of appropriate foster homes.

The department had been looking at conditions within the church since the Sept. 20 raid by FBI agents and state police officers who were investigating allegations that children had been physically and sexually abused at the compound. Six girls, ages 10 to 17, were taken into protective custody.

Alamo, the ministry’s 74-yearold leader, was arrested five days later on charges of transporting a minor across state lines for sexual purposes.

On Monday evening, Sebastian County Circuit Judge Mark Hewett and Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin signed orders finding that probable cause existed to believe other children of church members had been abused or were at risk of abuse or neglect. The orders allowed the Human Services Department to take in any children at the compound and at 14 Alamo-controlled homes, warehouses and other businesses in the Fort Smith area. The orders also named certain children or their families.

Griffin said Wednesday that the order he signed contained four pages of names.

“According to the allegations, there are some habits or practices in the church that create a serious risk of harm to the children,” Griffin said.

The order included some girls who were alleged to have been sexually abused, he said.

Munsell said she didn’t know how many children covered by the order had been missed Tuesday. She said the department is continuing to look for the children and has sent copies of the orders to social service agencies in Oklahoma, where some members of Alamo’s church in Fort Smith live, as well as California and New Jersey, where Alamo also has operations.

George Earl Johnson Jr., a spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, said his agency has been in touch with Arkansas but hasn’t received a formal request to pick up any children.

“What’s going on in Arkansas is not causing us to do anything special as far as investigating or anything like that,” he said.

Munsell said if the vans had continued into Texas, Arkansas authorities wouldn’t have been able to stop them. Arkansas would have had to send Texas a request to have the children picked up, she said.

A hearing continued Wednesday on whether four of the girls taken in the September raid should remain in foster care, be placed with a relative or return to their parents, possibly with conditions.

In the morning, Griffin heard from two former church members — a teenage girl and a young man — who described experiencing or witnessing abuse. Testimony in the hearing, which is closed to reporters, continued into Wednesday evening.

Both that hearing and one for the two other girls, assigned to Miller County Circuit Judge Jim Hudson, are expected to continue into next week. Under Arkansas Code 9-27-327, such hearings must be held within 60 days of the initial probable cause hearing. That would be Nov. 25 for Hudson’s cases and Nov. 29 for Griffin’s.

Griffin said it’s unclear whether the law requires the hearings to be finished within the 60-day period. The judges hope to have both hearings finished by Thanksgiving, he said.

“That’s my intention,” Griffin said. “If something prevents us from doing that, then we’ll deal with that when we get there.”

In: 2008 - (Trial year)

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