1/12/09 – Final custody hearings today; Testimony closed during inquiry for 23 children of Alamo followers

Texarkana Gazette
January 12, 2009
By: Lynn LaRowe

Final custody hearings today
Testimony closed during inquiry for 23 children of Alamo followers

Today a Miller County circuit judge will begin final custody hearings for 23 children taken from followers of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries in November and December.

Testimony in the closed hearings, expected to include allegations of beatings, underage weddings and sexual abuse, will not be heard by a public that has recently seen a barrage of denials by church members defending their controversial leader and his teachings online and in the media.

Of the 20 children removed in November, 17 were taken from sport-utility vehicles just minutes before crossing the state line into Texas. Removal orders signed by Arkansas judges would have been unenforceable there.

Three of the 20 were taken by the Arkansas Department of Human Services in a courtroom where they were present to testify in custody hearings for six girls removed in September.

The four found in December were with their mother in a house in Arkansas.

Circuit Judge Joe Griffin will begin hearings for 23 of those children this morning.

Later this month, Sebastian County Circuit Judge Mark Hewett will conduct hearings concerning six other children.

Of the 20 taken in November, one was so close to legally becoming an adult that his final hearing was held in December. The young man elected to remain in state care and take advantage of educational and employment assistance being a foster child at 18 makes him eligible to receive.

Griffin and Circuit Judge Jim Hudson ruled in November that six girls taken Sept. 20 would remain in foster care.

The girls were the first of 36 children taken by DHS.

Adjudication orders for two of the girls, 14 and 16, assigned to Hudson’s court describe the testimony of multiple former followers alleging physical abuse in the form of beatings and forced fasts as well as sexual abuse, though none of the six girls was allegedly abused sexually.

Hudson’s order states that the 16-year-old’s mother requested John Kolbek, a fugitive associate of Alamo’s widely described as his enforcer, beat her daughter. The girl’s father, according to the order, watched at least once as Kolbek beat one of the girl’s older brothers.

Both judges told the parents that reunification would be possible if they severed economic, employment and residential ties with Alamo Ministries.

The parents of the two girls assigned to Hudson’s court remain loyal to Alamo’s teachings.

Alamo Ministries paid for lawyers to represent the parents during final custody hearings in November. Earlier this month the parents requested court-appointed lawyers to help with their appeals.

The parents work as volunteers for Alamo Ministries and are supported by the church, Hudson’s order granting court-appointed counsel said. The parents’ lack of assets in the form of either cash or property led Hudson to find them partially indigent, though he did note in his order they possessed the capacity to acquire gainful employment.

Last week, the Arkansas Public Defender Commission declined to represent the parents in their quest to overturn Hudson’s decision. Hudson said authorities with the commission disagreed with his finding that the parents are partially indigent.

Hudson publicly announced the commission’s decision during a hearing Thursday that addressed the Internet publication of a video of the 16-year-old speaking with a forensic interviewer. The interview was recorded less than a day after she was taken from Alamo Ministries properties in Fouke, Ark.

Hudson approved a motion last Thursday from DHS that orders the girl’s parents to take immediate action to get the video off the Web.

Hudson’s order gave the couple seven days to provide the court with proof of their efforts to get Tom Friess of First Amendment Radio to remove the interview from his site and to retrieve a copy of the video mailed to President Bush at the White House.

As of Sunday, the video was still available on Friess’ site.

In it, and in tapes of five other girls removed at the same time, abuse is denied and life in the church is described as idyllic.

The tapes of the five other girls were mailed anonymously to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette with the ministry’s Fouke address listed as a return and posted last week on that paper’s Website.

DHS officials said they will file a motion for removal of those five videos once their investigation identifies from whom they were sent.

Outside the courtroom last week, the 16-year-old’s mother espoused a belief that Alamo is being targeted because the government fears his message.

“… They want to keep his mouth shut,” she said. “The Bible says the Vatican is the center of the abomination of everything on the face of the Earth.”

The father of the 14-year-old expressed similar views in a Dec. 2 radio interview with Friess.

“The government is desperate. I mean they’re in a panic to silence pastor Alamo beacuse he’s doing such a powerful job of exposing them. Our children are just pawns in their game … he’s the only one connecting the dots of the clandestine secretive activities of the gorvernment and that the Vatican is behind all this. And they’ll stop at nothing.”

Parents of six children who were among the 20 taken by DHS in November were also interviewed.

“It’s just like what they did in Nazi Germany. It’s just like what they did in Babylon,” said the father of six.

“They’ve got people all over the United States to hunt down our hundred children that escaped their clutches,” said the man in reference to a large number of children listed on removal orders signed by circuit judges in Miller and Sebastian counties who have not been located.

The face of the girl in the video released first is clearly visible while the other five girls’ faces are blurred. None of the voices have been altered.

Officials with DHS and an ad litem attorney working on behalf of one of the girls have criticized those who’ve distributed and posted the videos for failing to consider what effect their availability for global viewing might have on the girls themselves.

Listening again to the questions and answers given and the potential teasing from peers at school could have a detrimental effect, they said.

Interviews conducted at Child Advocacy Centers with suspected victims of neglect and abuse are meant for use by law enforcement, the courts and child welfare agencies only.

Rules meant to give each side in a court case equal footing allowed defense attorneys access to the videos and thus the parents were privy to them as well.

Documents and “subsequent videos” that support Hudson’s and Griffin’s decisions to leave the six girls in foster care were not posted online, said ad litem attorney Carla Reyes last week.

“That’s definitely not the whole story,” said CAC and Court Appointed Special Advocates Director Danita Abernathy previously.

Later this month, hearings to address the custody of six children with connections to Alamo properties in Fort Smith, Ark., will be conducted in Sebastian County.

Tony Alamo, whose real name is Bernie LaZar Hoffman, is facing a 10-count criminal indictment in the Western District of Arkansas’ Texarkana division that alleges the 74-year-old brought young girls across state lines for sex. He is being held in a jail in downtown Texarkana. His trial is scheduled for May.

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