Little Rock - Two members of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries were released from jail Monday after spending more than seven months behind bars for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of their children.
Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin issued an order about 4 p.m. for the release of Bethany Myers and Don Thorne, who had each been jailed since January when they were found in contempt of court for refusing to provide information about their children's whereabouts.
The order says only that their "punishment has been served," but doesn't give any further explanation for their release, said Cheryl Barnes, litigation specialist for a group known as CPS Watch Legal Team, which is assisting the parents in the child welfare cases. A jailer said both parents werereleased from the Miller County jail about 5:30 p.m.
"We're very pleased that they were released from custody," said Joe Quick, of Daytona Beach, Fla., who is representing the parents on behalf of CPS Watch Legal Team. "The parents will continue to cooperate 100 percent with thegovernment to gain the return of their children, but that must be balanced with their religious beliefs."
Myers' three sons, then ages 5, 9, and 15, and one of Thorne's sons, then age 13, were taken into protective custody, along with 13 other children, in a Nov. 18 traffic stop on Arkansas 245 in Texarkana. The Arkansas Department of Human Services is continuing to search for Myers' three daughters, listed in a November order as ages 5, 9 and 15, and two of Thorne's other children, a 14-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy.
In January, Griffin held both parents in contempt of court after they refused to provide information about the children whose whereabouts remain unknown.
His order Monday came two weeks after the parents' attorney filed a motion asking for Griffin to hold a jury trial on the contempt charges and allow the parents to post bail.
Under Arkansas Code 16-10-108, criminal contempt, used to punish disobedience or disruptive behavior, is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail.
There is no statutory limit on how long someone can be held for civil contempt, which is usedto coerce someone to comply with a judge's order.
But Barnes, the CPS Watch Legal Team litigation specialist, said the parents likely do not know where their children are and so had no way to purge their contempt.
"Their phone calls are monitored, their letters are monitored, so there's no reason to think they know where their children are right now," Barnes said.
Desiree Howard, the CPS Watch Legal Team coordinator, said, "I think it's appropriate. They should have been released a long time ago."
Griffin was not in his office late Monday afternoon and couldn't be reached for comment. Julie Munsell, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, did not return a call seeking comment.
Since the ministry's compound in Fouke was raided in September, a total of 36 children have been removed from their homes in the ministry and placed in foster care. The Human Services Department says the children are endangered by practices including underage marriages and beatings for violations of church rules. The department is continuing to search for 98 childrennamed in court orders as being at risk of abuse.
Tony Alamo, the ministry's 74-year-old leader, was convicted last month of taking five underage girls across state lines for sex between March 1994 and October 2005. His attorneys filed a motion for a new trial on Friday, arguing, among other reasons, that the evidence was insufficient to convict him and that the judge should not have allowed testimony about Alamo's relationships with adult women. Alamo is expected to be sentenced in about six weeks, after the completion of a report by the federal probation office.
Judges have ordered the parents of ministry children to move off church property and find jobs outside the ministry if they hope to regain custody of their children. Barnes said review hearings for some of the children's cases will be held later this month.