12/17/08 – Father seeks custody of 4 sons removed from Alamo compound

December 17, 2008

Father seeks custody of sons in Alamo case

A worker at the Trane Inc. plant in Fort Smith, Jose Avila left the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries about eight years ago, when he and his wife separated.

While he kept in touch with her and their five sons, he wasn’t aware of any abuse within the ministry, said Avila’s attorney, Pamela Fisk of Texarkana, Texas.

Now the boys have been placed in foster care by the Arkansas Department of Human Services, which contends that the practices of the church, including beatings for seemingly minor infractions, put children at risk of abuse.

A hearing on the custody status of the oldest of the Avila boys, who will turn 18 this month, is set for today in Miller County Circuit Court. Jose Avila will ask for custody of the teen today, Fisk said, and he plans to seek custody of his other sons in future court proceedings.

“He’s very concerned and wants to get them placed back in his home,” Fisk said.

The five brothers are among 36 children taken into protective custody amid an investigation into allegations of physical and sexual abuse within the ministry.

Six girls, ages 10 to 17, were taken into protective custody on Sept. 20 after federal and state authorities raided the ministry’s compound in Fouke. Tony Alamo, the ministry’s 74-year-old leader, was arrested in Arizona five days later on charges that he transported an underage girl across state lines for sexual purposes.

Since then, 30 more children have been taken into state custody. Avila’s 17-year-old son was among three boys taken into custody Nov. 18 at the Juvenile Court Center in Texarkana, where they had been attending a hearing on the custody status of two of the girls taken in the September raid.

The other four Avila boys and their mother were found at a residence in Arkansas on Friday evening. The Human Services Department is looking for 92 or more children whose parents are associated with the ministry.

A woman who lives at the church compound in Fouke said the Avila boys are “precious well-cared-for children.”

“One of them is a specialneeds child,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “We hope they are taking care of that child, because he is very attached to his mother.”

Human Services Department spokesman Julie Munsell confirmed that one of the boys has a disability, but she didn’t have further details Tuesday.

At a hearing today, Miller County Circuit Judge Kirk Johnson could order the 17-year-old Avila boy to be returned to one of his parents or to remain in foster care until Dec. 28, when he will turn 18, Munsell said.

When he is 18, the boy could ask for his case to be closed, or he could remain in the fostercare system while he attends college or trade school or works toward his high school diploma, Munsell said. In that case, the state would pay for his educational and living expenses, but the judge could impose restrictions on his association with the church.

Along with the adjudication hearing, the Human Services Department will ask Johnson to hold an initial hearing for the 17-year-old’s four brothers, Munsell said.

At that hearing, Johnson would decide whether probable cause exists to believe the boys were at risk of abuse or neglect and whether they should remain in foster care pending further court proceedings. If the boys remain in foster care, an adjudication hearing for them will be held within 60 days.

Fisk said Avila and his wife, Becky, had attended the ministry’s church in Fort Smith. Avila left the church and separated from his wife, but they remained married, and Avila had “frequent contact” with her and his children, Fisk said.

“He wasn’t aware of any of the abuse that was going on in the ministry,” Fisk said.

A phone message left for Becky Avila at the church in Fort Smith wasn’t returned on Tuesday.

Becky Avila was with her 17-year-old son when he was taken into custody at the Juvenile Court Center, Fisk said, but she did not attend an initial hearing on his custody status on Nov. 24. Johnson could appoint an attorney for her at the hearing today, Fisk said.

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