1/31/09 – Hearing on Alamo kids held day early

January 31, 2009

Hearing on Alamo kids held day early

FORT SMITH – A day earlier than originally scheduled, a judge held a hearing Thursday in Fort Smith on the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ decision to take into custody six children whose parents have ties with the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries.

But attorneys and childwelfare officials aren’t talking about what happened at the hearing, which had been set for Friday. Sebastian County Circuit Judge Mark Hewett issued a strict gag order barring anyone from discussing the case.

“He doesn’t want any party disclosing any information, including the outcome,” Julie Munsell, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, said Friday. Hewett declined a request for an interview Friday.

The silence is a departure from how the cases involving the other 30 children who have been removed from the ministry have been handled.

In those cases, filed in Miller County, judges have provided reporters with some information on the allegations and court proceedings while being careful not to identify the children. In at least two instances, Miller County Circuit Judge Jim Hudson has opened his courtroom to reporters, citing the need to inform the public about the case and about how the juvenile-court system works.

Generally, however, such proceedings are confidential. According to Arkansas Code 9-27-325, “All hearings involving allegations and reports of child maltreatment and all hearings involving cases of children in foster care shall be closed.”

“According to the allegations, the children have been victimized once, and if you’re putting it out there for everyone to see, or you’re identifying the children, then you’re revictimizing them,” said Kelly Olson, director of clinical programs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law.

Munsell said its “very unusual” for judges or state officials to release information about such cases.

“In the cases of the Alamo ministry, because it’s high profile and because of the courts having released summary information, we have followed their guidance,” Munsell said. “Generally speaking, we do not disclose or divulge that kind of information.”

Mary Coker, founder of the anti-Alamo group Partnered Against Cult Activity, said Hewett must have had a good reason for the gag order.

“The main concern has to be what’s good for the children,” Coker said.

The Human Services Department contends that children in the ministry are endangered by practices that include underage marriages and beatings for violation of church rules. Tony Alamo, the ministry’s 74-year-old leader, is in jail awaiting trial on federal charges that he transported five children across state lines for sex over the past 15 years.

The six children whose hearing was held Thursday were found at a home in Valparaiso, Ind., on Dec. 2. At a hearing Dec. 8, Hewett found that probable cause existed to believe the children had been abused or were at risk of abuse. He ruled that “the emergency conditions which warranted the removal of the juveniles continues such that it is necessary that the juveniles remain in an out of home placement pending adjudication of this matter.”

One parent of some of the children who were the subject of Thursday’s hearing declined comment.

Anthony Lane of Slidell, La., a 34-year-old former ministry member who owns a roofing business in Texarkana, is the father of three of the children, a 9-year-old boy and two girls, ages 10 and 13. He has said he had been looking for them since he was kicked out of one of the church’s duplexes in Moffett, Okla..

According to a paternity suit Lane filed in Sebastian County Circuit Court, Lane and the children’s mother, Lesia Heffner, lived together from 1989-96 before splitting up. After reconciling more than a year later, they were “married” in a ceremony at the church in the Fort Smith area, where Lane worked without pay in the ministry. He said he tried to persuade Heffner to leave after seeing a 13-year-old girl be married to a 40-year-old man. Heffner reported the attempt to get her to leave to Alamo, and Alamo kicked Lane out, the suit says. Lane declined to comment Friday, citing the gag order.

Douglas Christopher, also known as Allen Matthew Rehn, is the father of the other three children, two girls and a boy. On Jan. 20, he turned himself in to authorities to answer charges he participated in the 1988 beating of an 11-year-old boy at the ministry’s compound in Saugus, Calif.

On Friday, Christopher made an appearance in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Newhall. A judge appointed him an attorney, although Christopher said he plans to hire one on his own, said Jane Robison, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. The judge scheduled him to appear again Feb. 17, Robison said. Christopher remains in jail with bail set at $100,000.

Shelton Sargent, who represents Christopher and Heffner in the child-welfare case, didn’t return a call seeking comment.

In: 2009 - (Trial year)

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