Child discipline at root of church trial

Atlanta Journal-Constitution/October 9, 2002
By Steve Visser and Jill Young Miller

The five members of the House of Prayer say they're loving parents who monitor their children's school work and whip them if they're disrespectful or do bad things. Prosecutors, who want to see them convicted of cruelty, paint them as zealots who beat their children in an almost ritualistic way.

The defendants, including the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr., and the parents of one of two boys they are accused of beating, contend they gave tough love. The state says they cruelly punished two boys by whipping them excessively.

Jurors will have to define "excessive." Georgia law doesn't.

The church members are on trial in Fulton County Superior Court in a case that has to separate child abuse from loving but appropriate discipline. It's a drama that could play differently at different times, as standards change about how parents can punish their kids.

When police and social workers raided the church member's homes and seized 49 children, some metro Atlantans viewed Allen and his followers as monsters. Others saw them as people trying to do the right thing.

It all began when Kristi Thompkins, a first-grade teacher of one of the allegedly abused boys, said she was "appalled" when she saw the bruises on Ricky Wilson, then 7, at C. W. Hill Elementary school in February 2001.

"He pulled up his shirt and said, 'Look at what they did to me in church,' " Tompkins said. "He said that he had been beaten by a big stick."

Prosecutors contend the children were punished by being lifted into the air by four adults, each grasping an arm or a leg, so that another church member could whip them at Allen's direction.

Phyllis Clerk, one of the prosecutors, outlined the case to jurors as no "simple spanking," and said the church was Allen's province with no elders or oversight. She said sometimes kids are tardy to school or fall asleep in class.

"They're in church morning, noon and night," she said. "They have marathon church service . . . into the wee hours of the morning."

'We are not monsters'

Allen, 70, is acting as his own lawyer as are his co-defendants, David and Sharon Duncan, 45 and 41, Charles Ogletree, 30, and Emanuel Hardeman, 37.They contend the Bible teaches to save a child by using a rod, if necessary, to raise them properly. The close-knit members pray and socialize together -- and have disciplined children -- in the plain, brick church on Hollywood Road, a hardscrabble neighborhood in northwest Atlanta.

Allen outlined the defense's case for the mostly female, mostly white jury whose members hail primarily from Buckhead and the Fulton suburbs. He told them his 130 parishioners -- in a church to which he's dedicated 35 years -- aren't on welfare.

"The men in our church do work, and this is one thing that I insist upon, that they work and take care of their families," said Allen, dressed in gray slacks and a gray cardigan. "We're not learned people, we're not highly educated people. We're plain, down-to-earth, common people who work hard and take care of our families.

Thompkins, the trial's first witness, testified she learned that Ricky's 10-year-old cousin, David Duncan Jr., got a similar whipping. Later that day, the school social worker called David from class, said his 4th-grade teacher, Rosie Flynt.

"He was almost in a jovial mood," she said. "He said, 'I know what this is about,' and he had a smile on his face."

The teacher described David as an unruly child. "He was very rude and disrespectful," she said.

She had reported David's behavior to his parents, Sharon and David Duncan Sr., and said his father had met with her after work to discuss it. Under Allen's questioning, she acknowledged she favored corporal punishment, and it wasn't uncommon for a student to fear a teacher reporting bad behavior to a parent. She also had been whipped as a child.

Her childhood experience was akin to most of the jurors'. During pre-trial questioning, most jurors said they had been whipped or spanked although, highlighting the cultural shift of the times, only about a third said they spanked their kids.

The issue of corporal punishment presents a fine line for prosecutors because society is split on spanking. Punishing children has evolved from a point where a parent could use a strap to "tan your hide" to one where some say only "time outs" are appropriate.

Prosecutors tried to differentiate between a spank with a hand and one with a belt, which they contend church members used.

"How do you define spanking," lead prosecutor Patricia Jackson asked Flynt.

"I define it as using either the palm of your hand or a belt to discipline a child," Flynt said.

Laura Hudlow, a Department of Family and Children Services social worker, acknowledged the law didn't define excessive, which was a problem.

She described Sharon Duncan as "nonchalant" when she confronted her about the bruises on her son. "She said kids were always falling down," Hudlow said. "She didn't seem concerned at all."

The agency seized the Duncans' children because they refused to only discipline their children themselves -- rather than at a group whipping -- and in a way that didn't leave marks on them, Hudlow said. She said the Duncans denied punishing their children too harshly.

"Our definition of what is excessive or harmful is not the same," Hudlow said. Her agency later returned some of the Duncan's children but kept David and three others.

Doctor to testify

In questioning her, Allen sought to highlight the agency's reputedly dismal record at protecting children under its care and supervision, either in foster care and group homes.

Allen asked Hudlow how the marks on the children compared to other cases in her 15 years with an agency that has had cases of children murdered and tortured.

"Is this one of the worst cases you've seen?" Allen asked.

"Yes, it was pretty severe," Hudlow shot back. "I would say it would be in the top three."

Later, Allen asked Hudlow, "How far are parents allowed to go?"

Hudlow responded, "That's not specifically spelled out."

The state will continue its case today, and at least one doctor is expected to be called to testify about the extent of the injuries.

In all, the state called six witnesses Tuesday. Zunilda Tejeda, a state child abuse investigator, said the injuries to the boys were "very excessive."

Allen challenged her testimony, citing Tejeda's previous testimony in a Fulton County Juvenile Court hearing in which she described Ricky Wilson's wounds as "kind of reddish, very thin marks."

Said Tejeda, "I thought I said very deep, reddish marks."

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