A custody battle over a four-year-old boy whose mother is a member of a free-love religious sect exploded in a San Diego courtroom today. At issue, whether the group named The Family is a religion, or a cult.
There were heated words in family court Monday, where a mother and father are fighting for custody of their four-year-old son. The mother, 28-year-old Angie Staughton, is a member of a notorious religious sect called The Family.
The father, Paul Staughton, left the group because he disagrees with its philosophy of open sexuality to show love for Jesus. Current members of The Family call it a Christian missionary group, but many ex-members say it’s a cult.
“I’m asking Mr. Baumer to stop using the word ‘cult,’ because that is irrelevant. The issue is the child and the mother and the father, nothing more,” said Angie Staughton’s attorney Jeanie Cetlinski.
Formerly known as the Children of God, The Family is a Christian sect whose members live in communes like the one in Escondido where the four-year-old boy currently lives with his mother. Some ex-members say the open sex practices of The Family led to widespread child abuse in the 1970s and 80s.
“The organization itself does not protect the child from pedophiles,” said Paul Staughton’s attorney Robert Baumer.
Baumer worries some of those alleged child abusers are still members of the group.
“Some of them may practice this behavior on the children. In other words, sexual intercourse, or molestation with the children,” he said.
The Family says it outlawed sex with minors 20 years ago, and in court papers, Angie Staughton said she would never allow anyone to abuse her son.
“It’s not the religion at issue. It’s the best interest of the child and whether the mother is able to provide care for the best interest of the child,” Cetlinski said.
On Monday, the judge denied the mother’s request to seal the court record and bar the media from the courtroom. The case has gotten the attention of both local and national media.
Last month, the judge ordered a site inspection of the group’s commune in Escondido to see if it’s a safe environment for the boy. An inspection report is expected to be filed with the court sometime in January.