Judge: Open to plan by parents
TEXARKANA — A judge said Saturday that he would be open to a plan that would protect two teenage girls taken from Tony Alamo’s religious compound while allowing their parents to stay in the ministry, but the parents haven’t proposed such a plan.
In a hearing that concluded Friday evening, Miller County Circuit Judge Jim Hudson ruled that the girls can eventually be reunited with their parents if the parents agree to move off property controlled by Tony Alamo Christian Ministries and to establish financial independence from the church.
He said his ruling followed the recommendation of the Arkansas Department of Human Services, which portrayed the ministry’s compound in Fouke as a place where girls were at risk of sexual abuse and where seemingly minor infractions were punished with beatings.
“It seems from their recommendation that they don’t see a way that the problems with abuse and neglect could be solved within the context of that very tightly knit community,” Hudson said. “That’s their position. That’s not my position.” The girls, ages 14 and 16, are among six girls removed from the compound on Sept. 20 after a raid by state and federal authorities investigating allegations that children at the compound had been physically and sexually abused.
Alamo, the ministry’s 74-yearold leader, was arrested five days later on charges of transporting another girl across state lines for sexual purposes. On Tuesday, Human Services caseworkers took an additional 20 children into custody in a sweep of Alamocontrolled properties in Fouke, Texarkana and Fort Smith.
During a three-day hearing on the custody status of the 14-yearold and 16-year-old, the Human Services Department alleged that one of the girls had been beaten at the compound and the other had witnessed abuse.
The girls were not alleged to have been sexually abused, but the department said they were at risk living in the same house where Alamo lived with several women he had taken as “wives.” The girls also had not received childhood vaccinations, and the parents didn’t present any evidence that the school at the compound had certified teachers or that the girls had been registered as home-schooled students, Hudson said.
On Friday, Hudson said, he ruled that the parents had failed to adequately supervise and protect their daughters and had neglected them medically and educationally. They were not accused of abusing the girls.
Following the recommendation of the department, Hudson ruled that the girls cannot return home until their parents sever some of their ties to the church. The parents can continue to attend services, however.
The parents “disagree with everything that was decided, pretty much, but they didn’t offer any evidence opposing the case plan,” Hudson said. The father of the 14-year-old testified that he would be willing to take steps toward independence from the church, but he wanted to know the details of what would be required, Hudson said.
A church member said the other parents were meeting with an attorney to prepare for an initial hearing, scheduled for Monday, on the status of one of their other children, who was taken into protective custody during Tuesday’s sweep. Also Monday, testimony in a hearing on the custody status of the four other girls taken in the September raid is scheduled to continue.
The member, who asked not to be named, blamed the allegations on “a bunch of disgruntled backsliders” and said the parents will continue to fight to regain custody of their children.
Mary Coker of Fouke, president of the anti-Alamo group Partnered Against Cult Activity, said she doubted the parents would be willing to sever their ties to the church.
“These parents have spent their whole adult lives following the teachings of Tony Alamo,” Coker said. “How can anybody really believe that they could or would turn away from all that they know ?” Julie Munsell, a Human Services Department spokesman, said caseworkers will monitor whether the parents follow Hudson’s ruling. If the parents fail to make progress, the department could recommend that the girls be placed with another relative or put up for adoption.
The girls likely won’t be allowed to attend services at the church for a while, although it’s possible that they would eventually be allowed to under certain conditions, Munsell said.
She said the department won’t necessarily recommend a separation from the church for all of the members whose children have been placed in foster care. Each case will depend on the protections in place for the child, she said.