Families' suit charges state with child abuse

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/March 1, 2003
By Jill Young Miller

A blistering federal lawsuit filed Friday on behalf of 46 children from the House of Prayer charges that when the state took them into protective custody, it sent them to places far more abusive than their families' homes.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, alleges that children were forced to wear the same underwear for weeks, lived with rats and roaches, were punched, slapped and burned and went to bed hungry, all while in the state's foster care system.

House of Prayer families are seeking $100 million in punitive damages from the city of Atlanta, Atlanta police, the Division of Family and Children Services, foster parents and others in the 43-page lawsuit.

Said Lucinda Perry, one of three lawyers representing the children, "It makes me sad that an agency like DFCS . . . would go out of its way to hunt down people who they claim abuse their children and then take those same children and throw them to the dogs."

State and city officials, who had not yet read the lawsuit, declined to comment Friday.

The lawsuit also lambastes Atlanta police, alleging they strip-searched House of Prayer children and used excessive force when they took them from their homes in March 2001.

Police knocked one boy against walls and to the floor, head first, then put a knee in his back and handcuffed him, injuring his head, lips, back and arm, according to the lawsuit. As for his sister, police "threw her around like a rag doll," Perry said at a news conference at the House of Prayer church, on Hollywood Road in northwest Atlanta. "You have children now who -- when they see police cars -- they're petrified."

Perry was flanked by silent House of Prayer parents and children, who wouldn't answer reporters' questions.

Noticeably absent from the news conference was their pastor, the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr., who is not part of the lawsuit. A warrant for Allen's arrest was issued Wednesday because his probation officer says he did not comply with the terms of his court-ordered counseling, Allen's lawyer Manny Arora said. Allen couldn't be reached Friday, and his lawyer said Allen had not turned himself in to Fulton County Jail.

In October, a jury convicted Allen and four other church members of cruelty to children for the whippings of two boys, then 7 and 10, at the church in February 2001. All served time in jail and are on probation.

After the two boys showed up at their school with welts and bruises, state social workers took them and 47 other children from six church families. The boys' whippings led to a lengthy state investigation of punishments at the nondenominational church.

Officials initially refused to release any of the children until their parents promised to stop using corporal punishment. But after authorities acknowledged they had evidence showing as few as three children had been abused, a judge sent 34 children home in May 2001.

For months, parents refused to see their children in foster care or agree to court orders to change their ways of disciplining children. A judge sent the last House of Prayer child home this February, after ordering more family counseling.

According to the lawsuit, the children lived in numerous shelters and foster homes and suffered verbal and physical abuse and hunger because caretakers stole the children's food.

At one facility, male workers watched girls as they took showers, the lawsuit says.

Another girl said a male doctor touched her "private parts" without a nurse in the room.

One boy's foster parent "forced him to clean feces off a mentally challenged child. His foster parents cursed at him constantly and told him that his parents did not want him." The boy returned home, the lawsuit says, "with a pencil eraser embedded in his ear."

Another boy was moved between shelters and foster homes 15 times before he was returned home in December 2002. In one foster home, a woman tied the boy to a bedspring, "put duct tape on his mouth, and punched him in his face," the lawsuit says.

Because of the risk of psychological damage, child welfare departments are not supposed to move children more than twice during their time in state custody, according to the federal Administration of Children and Families. Georgia failed to meet that standard in a recent federal review.

A boy from another House of Prayer family was ordered to sleep on the floor at a Fulton County shelter that the state shut down in December, after a lawsuit about unsafe conditions for children was filed against the state. A worker knocked down the boy, banged his head on the floor and choked him while a supervisor watched, the lawsuit says.

Perry said it may take years for the lawsuit to be resolved. As for the children, she said, their "psychological injuries, in my opinion, will be forever."

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