Authorities said dozens of children missing from Tony Alamo ministries in Fouke and Fort Smith, Ark., listed on a court order may be out of the reach of child welfare agencies if they've been taken across state lines.
Not a single child was found on Alamo properties in Fort Smith after officials with DHS and members of the Arkansas State Police searched more than a dozen sites Tuesday.
The orders authorizing removal listed many more children than the 20 taken Tuesday. The documents left at the Fouke compound referred to 126 children, some as "unknown" and others as "unknown juveniles."
The order gave permission for a search of 20 Tony Alamo Ministries properties in Miller County located in Fouke and Texarkana.
"Whether authorities in other states can take action when there's no evidence of neglect or abuse in their state is a big question," said Miller County Circuit Judge Jim Hudson. "It may depend on the individual state's laws."
On Tuesday, 20 children who were living on the Fouke compound were taken into state custody. Seventeen were seized as they traveled in sport utility vehicles from Fouke toward Texas.
Three boys present in court were delivered to DHS staff during custody hearings before Circuit Judge Joe Griffin that morning for six girls removed in September from the Fouke compound. In all, 11 boys and nine girls were taken.
Griffin agreed that Arkansas officials cannot enforce the civil orders he and Sebastian County Circuit Judge Mark Hewett issued authorizing DHS to remove the children if they've been taken out of state.
"All we can do is alert that other state and seek their cooperation to check on the welfare of the children. That state may not have a basis for the pickup," Griffin said.
DHS spokeswoman Julie Munsell said child welfare agencies in Oklahoma, New Jersey and California, states where Alamo Ministries owns other properties, have been contacted.
"We'll send our information to them and they'll have to make a decision on what to do there," Munsell said.
Griffin noted that the parents and other adults living on Alamo Ministries properties in Fouke and Fort Smith were never served with the removal documents.
"I can't accuse them of violating a court order," said Griffin, the circuit judge randomly assigned to the case involving the 20 children DHS took this week.
"Right now, Judge Johnson has consented to hearing my probable cause on Monday," said Griffin, who, for the last two days, has been conducting final custody hearings for two pairs of sisters taken from the Fouke compound in September.
Griffin said he hasn't determined whether the cases of the 20 children would remain consolidated or be split into multiple actions.
"I haven't seen enough of the evidence in their case yet to know," Griffin said of severing the cases. "Until I hear more, I can't give you a definite answer. It has the possibility that they could be consolidated to a significant degree."
Munsell said all of the 20 children have been identified.
"We are in the process of doing health assessments and making placements," Munsell said. "We've been able to keep sibling groups together. We believe that's in their best interest."
Placement in the same foster home was not an option for two pairs of sisters taken in September.
"We didn't keep the first six together because we felt it would interfere with their treatment and the investigation," Munsell said. "It's not the same dynamic with the children taken Tuesday."
Allegations of sexual abuse led to the removal of the six girls in September, while concerns of physical abuse in the form of beatings and starvation led to this week's intervention.
"This group seems to be responding better,"
Munsell said of the 20 children.
The children are being placed in foster homes throughout the state, he said.
If Johnson finds Monday that probable cause exists to keep the kids in state custody or if their parents waive them, final "adjudication" hearings to determine their permanent placement will be conducted no less than 60 days later.
With the removal of so many children at once, attorneys from areas outside Texarkana may be called upon to serve as ad litems to advocate legally for the kids in court.
In the cases of the six girls, officials appointed only female lawyers because of the nature of the allegations.
"We will have the opportunity to use male ad litems now," Griffin said.
"Depending on the circumstances we may be able to assign an ad litem to more than one child as long as there is no conflict of interest."
In custody cases, brothers and sisters are often assigned the same ad litem.
Another agency feeling the strain of dealing with so many children simultaneously is Court Appointed Special Advocates. CASA volunteers work with only one child at a time.
"When the girls were removed, we had to assign six volunteers at once. Finding 20 more is going to be a challenge," said CASA Director Danita Abernathy, who has hopes that local residents will want to help the children and be willing to be trained as volunteers. She said those interested in becoming volunteers can call the Texarkana CASA office at 870-775-1252.
Potential volunteers from other areas of the state are also sought. CASA volunteers must have no record of felony convictions and be at least 21.
"There is a real possibility that we'll be using volunteers from all over, not just here," Abernathy said, noting that visiting with the children in their foster homes may be easier for CASA workers living in areas closer to their placements.
Two CASA volunteers with years of experience were in Miller County Juvenile Court Wednesday on behalf of some of the girls removed in September.
"It's a critical time in their life when they're going through court hearings with attorneys and judges," said a CASA volunteer. "It's good for them to have somebody who talks to them on their level and is neutral. With us, they have somebody there they can talk to. It's very rewarding and those kids are just blessings to be around."