An 11-year-old boy who spent five months in foster care will return home to his father, a member of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries who lives in New Jersey, after a judge found no evidence the boy had been abused or neglected, the father's attorney said Wednesday.
The boy was taken into custody by the New Jersey Department of Children and Families' Youth and Family Services Division in January after a report that the boy had been physically abused, said attorney Rosemarie Anderson of Iselin, N.J. Anderson was appointed by the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender to represent the father, Steve Wedel.
The Youth and Family Services Division later determined that the allegations were unfounded, Anderson said. After a hearing in Elizabeth, N.J., on Tuesday, a state Superior Court judge ordered the boy returned to his father within five days, Anderson said.
"I think it took a little longer than it should have, but in the end the right thing was done," Anderson said.
The case was hailed as a victory for the ministry by the advocacy group CPS Watch Legal Team, which has sued the Arkansas Department of Human Services on behalf of the church over the removal of 36 children from their homes on ministry property in Arkansas.
The Arkansas agency says ministry children are endangered by practices that include underage marriages and beatings over disobedience. Tony Alamo, the group's 74-year-old leader, has been incarcerated since Sept. 25 and is awaiting trial on charges that he transported five under- age girls across state lines for sex during the past 15 years.
In November, the state Department of Human Services obtained court orders in Miller and Sebastian counties allowing it to take 128 ministry children into protective custody. It is continuing to search for 98 of them and has sought the cooperation of child-welfare officials in New Jersey and other states.
Wedel's son was not among the children named in the Arkansas court orders.
Cheryl Barnes, the CPS Watch Legal Team's litigation specialist, said the New Jersey ruling shows that not all ministry children are at risk.
"New Jersey has declined to follow suit with Arkansas in removing children on the basis of association with the Tony Alamo ministries," Barnes said. "Instead, they looked at this child [Wedel's son] individually, and they didn't find any abuse in that individual case."
Lauren Kidd, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Children and Family Services, declined to comment, citing privacy laws on child-abuse cases.
Arkansas Human Services Department spokesman Julie Munsell said her agency still believes ministry children are at risk of abuse, but it recognizes that the circumstances in each case are different.
"That's one of the reasons why every child's case is heard," Munsell said. "Every parent in that case will have the opportunity to demonstrate to the court their capacity to be able to parent that child."
She also noted that the goal in each case is to reunite children and parents, provided that conditions are met to ensure the safety of the children.
Wedel, who didn't return a call seeking comment Wednesday, and his wife share a home with fellow member Robert Streit and his wife in Elizabeth. He attends services at a ministry church in nearby New York City.
In Arkansas, judges have required church members to move off church property and find jobs outside the ministry before they can be reunited with their children. Barnes said the Wedels and Streits rent the house where they live from a man who is not a member. She said she doesn't know where Wedel works.
Caseworkers in New Jersey, accompanied by police officers, initially visited the house at 5 a.m. Dec. 5, searching for ministry children who had fled with their parents from Arkansas, according to an affidavit Streit filed in the Arkansas lawsuit. The Wedels were not home at the time, Barnes said.
On Dec. 30, the Youth and Family Services Division received a report that the son had been abused and neglected, according to a letter from the agency to Wedel and provided by Barnes. Barnes said the report alleged that the boy had been beaten by another ministry member last summer.
Youth and Family Services caseworkers took the boy into protective custody on Jan. 3 at Newark Liberty International Airport as he returned home from a visit with his mother, who does not belong to the ministry and lives in Overland Park, Kan., Barnes said. The mother could not be located for comment Wednesday.
The boy denied that he had been abused, Barnes said, and the agency determined the claim was unfounded. At the conclusion of Tuesday's hearing, Superior Court Judge Jo-Anne Spatola ordered the boy to be returned to his father within five days, Barnes said.
As a condition of the boy returning home, Spatola required that the boy be enrolled in school, rather than taught at home, and that Wedel submit to monitoring for three months. Wedel will follow those conditions but plans to appeal because he thinks they are unnecessary, Barnes said.
"The son has been homeschooled his whole life," Barnes said. "He tested above grade level."