State officials have concluded a four-month investigation into spankings at the House of Prayer by dropping an abuse case against the Atlanta church's pastor. But for 15 children from the congregation who remain in protective custody, the controversy over disciplinary practices at the church is no closer to resolution. Their parents won't agree to court-imposed conditions for the children's release "in my lifetime," the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr., the House of Prayer's 69-year-old pastor, said Monday.
Allen's defiance of state child welfare officials continued despite their decision to drop efforts to take his six children into custody. Officials canceled a court hearing scheduled for today at which they had planned to seek a judge's permission to seize the children, who are 6 months to 7 years old.
"There's no physical evidence" that the children were abused, said Andy Boisseau, a spokesman for the state Division of Family and Children Services. "We got the sense that only the larger kids (in the congregation) are actually spanked."
Dropping the abuse allegations against Allen was a major step in ending the lengthy dispute between the church and the state's child-welfare system. However, Allen and 10 other church members still face criminal charges of cruelty to children in the alleged beatings of two boys, ages 7 and 10. District Attorney Paul Howard soon will decide whether to prosecute the case, said Erik Friedly, his spokesman.
Allen contends that no children have been abused. "They were really trying to manufacture evidence," the pastor said at his home Monday. "That's why they kept postponing the trial. They were trying to get something against me."
In a statement issued Monday, Beverly Jones, the Fulton County DFCS director, said: "We became involved in this case as a result of one schoolteacher's observation and subsequent report of suspected abuse. Now, due to the widespread publicity surrounding this case, we expect there will be many more pairs of eyes in the community watching over these children.
We will certainly not hesitate to reopen the investigation if a suspected abuse report is brought to our attention in the future." Officials took a total of 49 children from six church families into custody. After the state investigation showed that no more than five children exhibited signs of abuse, 34 of the children were allowed to return home last month.
The other 15 will remain in custody "until we receive word from the parents they are willing to comply" with several court-ordered conditions, Boisseau said. The group includes two teenage girls who reportedly told officials they don't want to go home.
The parents would have to agree to restrict corporal punishment, to prevent their 14- and 15-year-old daughters from leaving the state to get married and to take state-sponsored parenting classes. The parents will not budge, Allen said. "We'll never do that," he said. "The parents are not going to agree to that.
Even if they stay (in custody) until their adulthood, they're not going to agree to these conditions." The children still in custody are as young as 7. After they spend a year in foster care, the state is required by federal law to either return children to their families or put them up for adoption.
Allen said the parents' refusal to accept conditions for the children's release is a matter of principle. "Once you start giving in to them, they're not going to stop there," he said.