A day after hearing testimony that a 17-year-old boy had been beaten with a wooden paddle by a member of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, a judge ordered the teenager to stay in foster care for 10 more days until he turns 18.
The boy told the judge he wants to remain in foster care after his birthday so the state will help pay for his college education.
The boy's parents, Jose and Becky Avila of Fort Smith, were upset to learn about the beating and have recently left the church, said their attorney, Pamela Fisk of Texarkana, Texas.
"They would like to have [their son] home, but this was basically his decision, and they support him in that decision," Fisk said.
Meanwhile, at the request of the Arkansas Department of Human Services, a judge curtailed the number of visits a mother can have with her 15-month-old daughter, despite the mother's contention that her daughter is still nursing. Another mother in the ministry conceded that her daughter, also 15 months old, had stopped nursing, and she reluctantly agreed to fewer visits.
"My parents' position is that DHS has interfered with the natural relationship between mother and child," said Lisa Wilkins of Texarkana, Texas, the attorney for the woman whose daughter has stopped nursing.
The teenager and infants are among 36 children who have been placed in foster care amid an investigation into physical and sexual abuse within the ministry. Tony Alamo, the ministry's 74-year-old leader, is in jail awaiting trial on charges that he transported five underage girls across state lines for sexual purposes over the past 14 years.
When the hearing for the 17-year-old began Wednesday, Miller County Circuit Judge Kirk Johnson heard testimony from a former member who said she had seen John Kolbeck, whom authorities have described as Alamo's "enforcer," beat the 17-year-old boy about two years ago as punishment for violation of church rules.
The woman testified via a conference call that Kolbeck struck the teenager several times in the face, then hit him on the buttocks with the paddle, Fisk said.
On Thursday, the judge ruled that the teenager had been abused, a finding the parents did not dispute, Fisk said.
"They did not know about it or approve of it or authorize it in any way, but they understand why the judge did what he did," Fisk said. Proceedings in childwelfare cases are closed to the public.
The 17-year-old told the judge he wants to participate in the Department of Human Services' Independent Living Program, which pays up to $5,000 a year in tuition and living expenses for youths who turn 18 while they are in foster care. Youths in the program leave foster care at age 21, but continue to be eligible for the assistance until they turn 23.
It's possible that the teenager could live with his parents while attending school, although the judge would have to approve, Human Services Department spokesman Julie Munsell said.
Johnson also said the teenager will be able to stay with his parents from the evening of Dec. 23 until the day after Christmas.
After the hearing, the parents left for a visit with their four other sons who also have been placed in foster care.
Parents of children taken from the ministry have generally been allowed one visit a week, but the two mothers had been allowed two additional visits a week so they could nurse their daughters.
But this week, the Department of Human Services filed a petition to eliminate the extra visits, saying the infants were no longer nursing.
Wilkins conceded that her client, Sophia Parrish, is no longer able to nurse her daughter. The girl was taken into protective custody, along with Parrish's three other children, during a sweep of Alamo-controlled properties on Nov. 18. Parrish didn't see her daughter again until Nov. 26, Wilkins said.
Miriam Krantz, whose daughter was taken during the Nov. 18 sweep along with her five other children, said her baby has nursed during each of her visits. All of her children were nursed until they were 2 or 2/2-years-old, she said.
"This age is an extremely important developmental time," Krantz said. "She's just starting to talk. I'm afraid of the damage it will do to her emotionally and developmentally, not knowing her mother and father."
On Thursday, Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin approved an agreement reducing the number of visits for Parrish and her husband to one twohour visit each week with all of their children. He also ruled that Krantz and her husband will receive one two-hour visit next week and one two-hour visit the week after that. In the future, they will receive two two-hour visits.
A hearing on whether the children will remain in foster care is scheduled for Jan. 12.