TEXARKANA, AR (AP) - The judge overseeing a custody hearing for 23 children taken from the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries says court proceedings to decide whether the children should stay with the state could last as long as two weeks.
Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin told reporters this morning he doesn't know whether the jailed evangelist would testify in the current round of hearings. Griffin said the 23 children in state custody came from nine different families. Griffin acknowledged the hearings would likely be long.
Before the hearing, a group of family members of the seized children gathered at the Miller County Juvenile Court Center. One woman who identified herself as a mother to six of the children taken by the state denied her children had ever been abused.
Initially, six children were taken during a September 20 raid by the Arkansas Department of Human Services based on accusations of beatings and sexual abuse. Since then, a total of 36 juveniles linked to Alamo's organization have been taken by the state. Authorities have said they are looking for dozens more associated with the ministry.
Griffin is considering the fate of 14 boys and nine girls.
The hearings are closed to the public and media because they involve juveniles, but the court has made available details of procedural aspects of the cases.
Griffin is expected to hear testimony from child welfare officials, who say Tony Alamo Christian Ministries punishes children with beatings, and from parents who say the allegations are part of an attempt to destroy their church.
Alamo, 74, is in federal custody, awaiting trial May 11 on a 10-count federal indictment that alleges he transported girls across state lines for sexual purposes. The minister has denied the charges but says his religious beliefs allow girls to marry when they reach puberty.