20 Nov 2010

Arkansas court asked to terminate rights of parents in cult, hears prison recordings of Tony Alamo directing followers

Arkansas Democrat Gazette - January 28, 2010

Court hears calls by Alamo from jail

At issue: Are parents fit to get kids back, or do they obey leader still?

by Andy Davis

During a hearing Wednesday on the custody status of children removed from the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, child welfare officials played recordings of evangelist Tony Alamo giving instructions to church members over the phone from jail.

The recordings were played after Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin ruled that they were admissible as evidence during hearings on whether several ministry members should have their parental rights terminated.

In one call recorded while Alamo was being held in the Bowie County jail in Texarkana, Texas, a ministry member can be heard asking permission to use a different car from the one the member normally uses, said Cheryl Barnes, litigation specialist for the parents advocacy group CPS Watch Legal Team.

In another, Alamo instructs church members not to pay one of his defense attorneys because he felt the attorney was not aggressive enough.

Attorneys with the Arkansas Department of Human Services played the recordings to show that, even while behind bars, Alamo remains in charge of the ministry’s operations, Barnes said.

To counter that argument, the parents’ attorney was expected to cite a U.S. Bureau of Prisons policy that prohibits inmates from running a business. An agency spokesman said Tuesday that the policy would also prohibit an inmate from directing the operations of a church.

The parents are “trying to show that the conditions are not the same” as when the children were placed in foster care, said Barnes, who is an advocate for the parents.

The hearings, which began Wednesday, concern 15 children, ages 2 to 16 from four families, who were taken into protective custody by child welfare authorities during a sweep of ministry properties in November 2008.

The Human Services Department has asked Griffin to terminate ministry members’ parental rights with respect to the children because the parents have failed to comply with orders that they move off church property and find jobs outside the ministry. The parents argue that the orders violate their religious freedoms.

If Griffin terminates the parents’ rights, the children could then be put up for adoption.

The proceedings are closed to the public, and Griffin has issued a gag order prohibiting parents, attorneys and others from speaking to reporters about the case. Although Griffin has briefed reporters about previous hearings, his assistant said he would have no comment about this week’s proceedings.

In addition to the hearings on whether ministry members should lose their parental rights, Griffin also held review hearings Wednesday on the custody status of ministry children from two other families, Barnes said. Testimony in the hearings continued into Wednesday evening and is expected to resume today.

Since a September 2008 raid on Alamo’s compound in Fouke, 36 ministry children have been removed from their homes and placed in foster care.

In November 2009, the Court of Appeals upheld the removal of five of the children, all girls, citing evidence of beatings, underage marriages, involuntary fasts, inadequate education and poor medical care. The court did not rule on whether the trial judge’s orders requiring the parents to find housing and jobs outside the ministry were constitutional, because, it said, the parents did not raise the argument at the trial level.

Other appeals by parents are pending, and the ministry has filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the Human Services Department of infringing on the parents’ religious freedoms. The department has denied any discrimination and has asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed.

Alamo, 75, was sentenced in November to 175 years in prison after being convicted of taking five underage girls across state lines for sex. On Tuesday morning, he was moved from the Bowie County jailto the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City, where he is awaiting an assignment to prison where he will serve out his sentence.

At Alamo’s trial in July, witnesses testified that Alamo remained in charge of the ministry during the four years he spent in federal prison for a tax evasion conviction in the 1990s.

One of the accusers at the trial also testified that, when she was 14, Alamo fondled her breasts and genitals in a visitation room at the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana, Texas.

Jurors at the criminal trial also heard recordings of Alamo’s phone conversations from the Bowie County jail. In one of them, he can be heard assuring someone he was “still in charge.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Plumlee said Tuesday that prosecutors have sent the Bureau of Prisons information about the witnesses’ testimony at the criminal trial. The agency can take the information into account when assigning Alamo to a prison and placing restrictions on his communication and interaction with visitors, Plumlee said.

Barnes said that, regardless of whether Alamo remains in charge, it’s unclear whether all of the parents would follow orders that would put their children in danger. Other ministry members have left the church in the past to protect their children, she said.

“We can’t presume that these parents, when confronted with a decision, that they would leave or would not leave,” Barnes said.

“We can’t just make that assumption.”

Barnes said the parents’ attorney, Phillip Kuhn of Lakeland, Fla., wanted the recordings of Alamo’s phone calls excluded from the hearing because they are hearsay, or statements made outside of court.

The Arkansas Rules of Evidence generally prohibit hearsay evidence from being introduced in court proceedings, but there are several exceptions, said Paula Casey, a professor the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law and former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

Under one exception, hearsay can be admitted if it is from a highly credible source and “more probative on the point for which it is offered than any other evidence which the proponent can procure through reasonable efforts.”

“If I were a judge deciding on the fate of a child, I would want to know everything I could possibly know,” Casey said.

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