Sparing rod would spoil his kids, pastor says

Hearing today on DFCS bid to seize Allen's six children

Atlanta Journal-Constitution/May 16, 2001
By Alan Judd

The Rev. Arthur Allen Jr. preaches what he practices. Just as he advises members of his northwest Atlanta church, the House of Prayer, to use corporal punishment to control their children, Allen says he sometimes has no choice but to spank his own children.

One recent day, he says, he took a switch to one of his daughters after she bit a sister and struck a brother. "I have to try to deal with this violation," he says, standing in his front lawn, "before it grows up in her."

A reporter wonders aloud whether Allen used a branch from the weeping willow tree a few feet away. "A weeping willow wouldn't do it," the pastor answers. "A little too limber. You need something to sting their legs."

In court today, the state will argue that Allen's disciplinary methods constitute child abuse. Lawyers for the state Division of Family and Children Services will ask a judge to let them seize Allen's six children. Already, in an investigation of alleged systematic abuse that includes whippings during church services, authorities have taken 49 children from six other House of Prayer families into protective custody.

It's the latest, and perhaps most important, skirmish in the dispute between DFCS and the small nondenominational Atlanta church. Allen and 10 other House of Prayer members face felony charges of cruelty to children. The case reached an ugly point last week when authorities raided the home of Charles and Kim Ogletree and removed seven children who screamed, cried and fought with police officers. Two of the children were led away in handcuffs in a scene played again and again on metro Atlanta television newscasts.

But in Allen, 68, officials are taking on a man who not only decides how to discipline his own children, but also exerts enormous influence over how members of his 130-member congregation punish theirs.

DFCS officials decline to comment on the evidence they'll present in court today. Allen, however, defends the use of corporal punishment in his church --- and his style of parenting his four daughters and two sons, whose ages run from 4 months to 7 years old. "They try to slip around and talk to disgruntled ex-members," Allen says of DFCS investigators. Those investigators, he says, are compiling "whatever bit of garbage they can dig up that they feel would convince others we are unfit parents."

Allen's wife, Trina, says two DFCS workers told her "they know our children are being well taken care of." "I don't know what else we can give the kids," the pastor says, "other than to give up the corporal punishment." "That's exactly right," Trina Allen agrees.

Two of the couple's children are sitting on a leather sofa, watching a video of the old public television series "Magic School Bus." The sound is muted while their father speaks with a visitor. A bottle of formula that Allen mixed is awaiting the baby, who sleeps in the next room. The three older children soon bound through the front door, home from school. They dart past Allen, to their mother. Allen mildly scolds them for ignoring the visitor.

"Speak to people when you come in," he says. "Yes, sir," they answer. One girl is distracted by a package of powdered-sugar doughnuts she wants to eat. "Your daddy's talking," her mother says. The girl turns and pays attention. "Eat one more doughnut, and that's all," Allen tells her. "Yes, sir."

All but the baby are the pastor's stepchildren. They've lived with him since April 2000, when he married Trina --- who, at 25, is 43 years his junior. They wed three days after his previous wife, Mary Allen, died of cancer. Their baby was born in January.

Trina Allen and the father of her first five children, Dexter Hardeman, both grew up in the House of Prayer. Hardeman left the church when he and his wife separated, but Trina Allen and the children stayed. One day shy of a year after she divorced Hardeman, she married the pastor. Their wedding took place in Heflin, Ala., the town across the state border where Allen takes 14- and 15-year-old girls from the congregation to be married.

The pastor and his wife have tried to prepare the children for being taken into protective custody. One of the boys has acted out at school, "hollering that DFCS is going to come and take him," Allen says. The oldest child, 7-year-old Shannon, cries because she misses her friends, who already are in foster care.

"My wife wanted to show them the pictures taken down at Sister Kim's," Allen says, referring to emotional images of the raid at the Ogletrees' home. "But I felt that would traumatize them. Our kids are not that tough. They're more timid-type children."

In court today, Allen says, he won't back down from his beliefs concerning corporal punishment. Like others from his congregation, he won't accept conditions that would keep his family together, such as promising not to spank his children with anything but his hand. But he says he's made it clear to the children that, even if they go into foster care, he'll make sure it won't be permanent. "I told them, 'Daddy will get you back.' "

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