Impasse at the House of Prayer: State keeping 15 kids until families OK deal

Parents leave it in God's hands

Atlanta Journal-Constitution/July 15, 2001
By Alan Judd

David and Carla Wilson could get their daughter back any time. Just agree to conditions that a judge set, and 7-year-old Erica immediately comes home. That seemingly simple act would keep the Wilsons from losing their oldest child forever. It would keep Erica from being offered for adoption by a new set of parents. But, like others from the House of Prayer, the Wilsons won't do it. They can't, they say.

"We love our daughter," David Wilson says. "We love the Lord more. He gave us a daughter, and I know in due time he's going to give her back to us." "We know," his wife adds, "to leave it in the Lord's hands."

After a four-month impasse over an abuse investigation at the northwest Atlanta church, state child welfare officials say they're tired of such intransigence. The state Division of Family and Children Services says it has made its final offer to release the last 15 House of Prayer children it is holding in protective custody. If the parents want their children back, it's up to them to make the next move.

Agency sets conditions

The parents aren't budging. So more than ever, the children are caught in the middle of a dispute that apparently can't be resolved. "I don't know what else we can do," says Andy Boisseau, a DFCS spokesman. "We can't force the kids back on them. "If the parents respond negatively," he says, "I think the course of events is that DFCS would then go back to court to sever parental rights and make them eligible for long-term foster care and/or adoption."

The church and DFCS have been battling since late February, when allegations surfaced of systematic abuse of the congregation's children. The agency ultimately took 49 children from six families into protective custody, dragging some of them from their homes in full view of television news cameras.

Repeatedly, social workers and a Juvenile Court judge gave the parents chances to end the dispute. The parents were told they could get their children back if they accepted a few conditions: They couldn't use corporal punishment if it left marks on the child. They couldn't allow their 14- and 15-year-old daughters to leave the state to get married. They couldn't keep their children at church so late they had to miss school the next day. Repeatedly, the parents refused.

Allegations evaporate

Then on May 25, DFCS blinked. After acknowledging it had evidence that no more than five children, and perhaps as few as three, had been abused, it let 34 of the 49 children go home without requiring their parents to agree to any conditions. It said the other 15 needed more psychological tests, and the agency now says they can't be released without assurances --- signed by the parents --- that they won't be abused. But the parents continue to refuse all proposed deals.

If necessary, they say, they're prepared to give up their children. "They want us to compromise our religion, and we can't do that," says the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr., who as the House of Prayer's pastor exerts enormous influence over his congregants. "If we lose faith with our God, they become our god. I guess Satan feels like for our children, we will renege. But whether it's for our lives or for our children, we're not going to renege on our faith."

Allen disputes reports from DFCS that three of the 15 children don't want to come home. He says he repeatedly hears from the children still in custody that they support the hard line he has taken. He shares a letter he received from 15-year-old Adrienne Smith, who is in a DeKalb County foster home with her sister, Stacy, 14.

"I love you so very much," Adrienne wrote to Allen and his wife, Trina. "You all have been a blessing to me and also my family. Through you all and the church, my family has stayed together. . . . God knows I love you all and also miss you all. I want to come home as soon as God says so."

On July 3, the day after Allen received the letter, the sisters ran away from the foster home. After what Allen calls a weeklong "vacation," the pastor sent them back to the foster home. The extended absence of all 15 children, Allen says, has taken a toll on the families divided by DFCS.

"It's like you're holding things in you," he says of the parents. "Once you start crying, you can't quit. Once it breaks loose, it'll just keep running. The sorrow they're holding, they couldn't control it if they ever let go." When Ricky and Yolanda Wilson's children say their prayers, first they thank God for their return from DFCS. Then they seek deliverance for their older brother and sister.

Deandra, 8, and Ricky Jr., 7, remain in custody, even though their six younger siblings were released in May. "We count it as a blessing to have them home," Yolanda Wilson says of the younger children. "But there's an empty spot there. Our family's not complete." That's especially true, Wilson and her husband say, since the family moved into a new house, provided by their church. Deandra and Ricky Jr. have never seen it, and their absence looms large.

The couple's 4-year-old, Andrew, often asks about Ricky Jr., his mother says. "He knows certain things," she says. "They all know their sister's not there, their brother's not there. They miss them." And the children still show signs --- some of them physical --- of their time in protective custody.

The Wilsons' son Tyler, 3, has a 3-inch scar on his neck from a wound he suffered while in foster care. He hasn't been able to explain how he got it. His father says if it had happened at home, he and his wife would have been charged with child abuse. But he says, "Who do you report DFCS to?"

DFCS has denied that any House of Prayer children were harmed in foster care. 'No evidence of abuse' Like other House of Prayer members, the Wilsons are contemptuous of DFCS. They refuse to take their children for psychological therapy, as the agency has demanded. And they are trying to compile documents to prove their claim that social workers fabricated the abuse charges against them. On a hot afternoon, Ricky Wilson leaves his spot in the shade outside his new house and retrieves a thick folder from his car.

Inside the folder is a statement from his children's doctor at Grady Memorial Hospital. On March 13, after social workers took the Wilson children into custody, Dr. B.J. Steele wrote: "I have personally reviewed their medical records and there is no evidence of abuse in these records." The other papers are from C.W. Hill Elementary, the school that Deandra and Ricky Jr. attended before they went into foster care. One page reports that Deandra made the honor roll in third grade. Another shows she earned rewards for her reading. Deandra and Ricky Jr. both made good grades --- A's, B's, the occasional C.

In the first half of the 2000-2001 school year, the papers show, Deandra missed three days; Ricky Jr., five. The papers seem to contradict claims by DFCS that the Wilsons frequently kept their children from attending school. Still, the Wilsons remain somewhat passive about their older children's future --- even the possibility they will be put up for adoption. "We leave everything in the Lord's hands," Ricky Wilson says. "The Lord knows what's best for our children."

"God has the final say over everything," his wife says. Their strategy, Ricky Wilson says, is simple: "Trust in the Lord." "That's right," Yolanda Wilson says. "We're not losing. We're winning. If it hadn't been for the Lord, we wouldn't have come this far. We haven't done anything wrong. We know the Lord's going to work this out."

Girl wants to come home

David and Carla Wilson have not visited Erica in foster care. It would be too painful, they say --- for the child and for the parents. But they occasionally talk to Erica by phone, and they say she wants to come home. Her siblings are just as eager for her return. "Her brothers and sister ask all the time when she's coming home," David Wilson says. "It's hard. But the Lord, he's holding us up. We know it's a matter of time. She'll be back. All of them will be back."

Wilson says he doesn't understand why he should have to accept disciplining conditions. "We shouldn't have to agree to something if we haven't done anything," he says, sitting in the apartment he rents from his pastor, where his three youngest children and several others from the church play together. "We don't just whip our children. We love our children. I'm not going to let nobody abuse my children."

Even before DFCS took the House of Prayer's children, David Wilson says, he and other parents used other approaches besides corporal punishment. Spanking, he says, was always "the last resort." But a few times since his youngest children returned home in May, David Wilson says, he has had to take that step. "You've got to have discipline," he says. "If you don't have discipline, you don't have nothing."

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