Parents of 5 kids ask their return

Arkansas Democrat Gazette/December 18, 2008

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 f ive 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.

One of the younger Avila children has Down's syndrome, Fisk said. The couple also has a grown son who left the church and is in the military.

While they waited for the court proceedings to start Wednesday, the Avilas, accompanied by their mothers, sat together and chatted amicably.

"It's sad that it happened, but we're getting closer" to regaining custody of the children, Jose Avila, 55, who works at a Trane Inc. plant, said afterward. "We've hardly had a good night's sleep since it happened."

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.

The Avilas' 17-year-old son did not attend the hearing because he is living in a foster home elsewhere in the state, and the judge feared that icy roads would make traveling to the hearing treacherous.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Johnson will decide whether to place the boy with his parents or keep him in foster care until he turns 18 on Dec. 28.

When he is 18, the boy could ask for his case to be closed, or he could remain in the foster care system while he attends college or trade school or works toward his high school diploma. In that case, the state would pay for his educational and living expenses until he turns 21, but the judge could impose restrictions on his association with the church.

Attorney Nelson Shaw of Texarkana, Texas, who was appointed to represent the boy, said he will encourage the boy to stay in foster care to receive the state assistance.

"I'd like for him to get as much education as possible," Shaw said.

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