Tony Alamo case: Parents of 5 kids ask their return
TEXARKANA – The parents of five boys who have been placed in foster care said Wednesday that they have left the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries and will work together to regain custody of their children.
“We’re hopeful that we can get our kids back, the sooner the better,” Jose Avila said, standing next to his wife, Becky, at the Miller County Courthouse in Texarkana. “We’re going to work and do everything we can to get them back, so they can be back with their dad and mom.”
The Avilas spoke briefly after attending a hearing on whether their 17-year-old son will remain in foster care until he turns 18 later this month. Testimony in the hearing began Wednesday and will continue today.
Earlier, at the Juvenile Court Center in Texarkana, the Avilas waived their right to an initial hearing on allegations concerning four of their other sons, who range in age from 8 to 14. A hearing on the custody status of those children was set for Jan. 14.
The five brothers are among 36 children affiliated with the Alamo ministry who were taken into protective custody amid allegations that children in the ministry have been physically and sexually abused.
Federal and state authorities raided the ministry’s compound in Fouke on Sept. 20. Tony Alamo, its 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.
The Avilas’ 17-year-old son was among three boys taken into custody Nov. 18 at the Juvenile Court Center, 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 were found at a residence in Arkansas on Friday evening. The Arkansas Department of Human Services is continuing to look for 92 or more children whose parents are associated with the ministry.
The Human Services Department contends that the practices of the ministry, which include beatings with a 3-footlong paddle for seemingly minor rule infractions, place children at risk of abuse. According to a report from the Fort Smith Police Department, a former church member named the 17-year-old Avila boy as one of several members that she had seen receive beatings.
Attorney Pamela Fisk of Texarkana, Texas, was appointed to represent Jose Avila shortly after the 17-year-old was taken into custody, and Miller County Circuit Judge Kirk Johnson on Wednesday appointed Fisk to represent Becky Avila as well.
The couple separated about eight years ago. Fisk said Tuesday that Jose Avila also left the ministry at that time, but he clarified Wednesday that he continued to attend services at the church in Fort Smith until recently.
Even before the Sept. 20 raid, the couple had begun working toward reconciliation and had been distancing themselves from the church, Fisk said. They still live apart in the Fort Smith area but are looking for a home together, she said.
“They’re going to work together to get the children back,” Fisk said.
At the hearing, Johnson heard about 20 minutes of testimony, via conference call, from a former Alamo ministry member who said she had been beaten and had witnessed other beatings, Fisk said. Hearings in child welfare proceedings are closed to the public.