2 House of Prayer children returned to parents' custody

Atlanta Journal-Constitution/August 16, 2002
By Alan Judd and Jill Young Miller

David Wilson grasped his daughter's slender hand. He lifted the 8-year-old into his beefy arms, holding her tight and swaying with her like she was an infant. After 17 months apart, he just couldn't let go.

"It was a long time coming," Wilson said Thursday at the House of Prayer church in northwest Atlanta. An hour earlier, a judge had released his daughter, Erica, from the custody of the Division of Family and Children Services, the state social services agency known as DFCS. Later Thursday, the judge allowed another child, 6-year-old Arturo Duncan, to return to his parents.

Their homecomings signaled a significant thaw in the lengthy impasse between state officials and members of the independent Hollywood Road church. Of the 49 children that social workers seized from six church families because of abuse allegations in early 2001, six remain in protective custody.

David Wilson -- who, like other House of Prayer members, believes the Bible calls for corporal punishment for misbehaving children -- said he and his wife, Carla, always had faith they would prevail.

Their faith persisted, he said, even as Erica marked a birthday in foster care.

"We knew it was going to happen," he said inside the church sanctuary, where authorities allege children have been beaten with belts, sticks and other objects. "It was just up to the Lord in his due time. We always believed he was going to bring our daughter home. He gave her to us, not to DFCS."

Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker seemed to agree. During Thursday's daylong hearing, she got the Wilsons to promise to abide by several conditions, including family therapy, tutoring for Erica's schoolwork and monthly meetings for the next three months with a state child welfare caseworker.

"I think the answer for this child is to return her to your legal custody," Walker said. She added the girl, who has been sent to a succession of foster homes, is less at risk "being in your home than being in the state's custody."

In releasing both children, Walker disregarded arguments by Ted Hall, a lawyer for the state agency. He said they should remain in the state's care because their parents have not disavowed their reliance on corporal punishment.

"You actually have no safety net" if the children go home, Hall said. "They intend to use corporal punishment that they deem appropriate."

Walker persuaded Arturo's parents, David and Sharon Duncan, to agree to meet with a social worker monthly and to enroll Arturo, an outstanding student, in a public school with a gifted program.

Four more of the Duncans' children, ages 4 to 11, remained in foster care at the end of the day. So did two children from another church family.

"I want to go home," one boy told the judge. His siblings had expressed the same yearning.

Walker, however, said she would review their cases in October after the children receive more counseling.

Authorities arranged for the Duncans to pick up Arturo on Thursday night. Carrying their 9-week-old baby girl, their 11th child, the couple left the Fulton County Courthouse with mixed feelings.

"You know, I feel good," Sharon Duncan said. "But I'm sad that the others couldn't come home."

Earlier in the day, the Wilsons took Erica from the courthouse straight to the House of Prayer, where church members have set up a school for the congregation's children. At the church, Erica hugged her pastor, the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr., who offered to buy her a new dress; women and girls from the congregation always wear dresses or skirts, and Erica outgrew everything in her closet while she was in state custody.

Erica's arrival disrupted the classes as other children hugged her repeatedly. Unlike her parents, who visited her every other week for the past several months, her friends hadn't seen her since social workers took her away. A large group crowded around her and screamed "Welcome home, Erica!" while an adult church member took their picture.

One of her grandmothers came to the church and reached over the back of a pew for a prolonged hug. Erica's little sister, Vickie, who is 3, sat close against her side as they relaxed with their parents near the front of the church. Erica's brothers, 6-year-old David Jr. and 5-year-old Daniel, were away on a school field trip.

Social workers removed Erica and her three siblings from their home late the night of March 3, 2001, and officials initially refused to release any of them until their parents promised to stop using corporal punishment. But after authorities acknowledged they had evidence showing as few as three children, including Erica, had been abused, a judge sent 34 children, including Erica's siblings, home in May 2001.

Over the past 17 months, Carla Wilson said, her daughter stayed in at least nine foster homes.

"I know she's been traumatized," the mother said. "The Lord is going to have to heal what she's been through."

David Wilson and Sharon and David Duncan are among the 11 church members facing criminal charges of cruelty to children. The charges stem from spankings administered to two boys -- one of whom is the Duncans' 11-year-old son -- at the church in February 2001. Five of those charged, including the pastor, are scheduled to go to trial in October, and the others could be tried in December. All face possible prison terms of one to 20 years.

For now, though, Wilson is happy to have Erica back, happy to have his family in one piece again.

"The Lord's just having his way," Wilson said. But, he added, "it looks like it shouldn't have ever happened."

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