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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia, 18 March 2001
Church faces abuse probe over whipping of children
By Alan Judd
Authorities are investigating a massive case of alleged abuse by parents of as many as 60 children from the same northwest Atlanta church.
Already, state social workers have removed 19 children from the homes of three members of the House of Prayer, 1194 Hollywood Road. Another church member said Friday evening that social workers had indicated they soon would take 11 of his children.
Atlanta police and social workers are looking into reports that church members systematically held down their children while beating them with belts and other objects - allegedly under the direction of the pastor, the Rev. Arthur Allen.
Allen acknowledged Friday that in 1993, a DeKalb County judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail for child abuse after he ordered a church member to beat her teenage daughter for having sex in a building where a Bible study group was meeting.
Friday evening, Allen took a defiant stance in the gravel parking lot of his church, as 75 church members crowded around and shouted encouragement under the glare of television lights.
The Bible, Allen said, gives parents the authority to "whip" their children.
"We believe in corporal punishment for unruly children," Allen said. "If something is reported in here, the parent saying they cannot handle the child, then I suggest they give the child a whipping."
"That's right," members of the congregation murmured.
"It's usually a belt - what I used to get in school," Allen added.
If authorities think he and his congregation committed a crime, he said, "Lock us up."
No criminal charges have been filed.
But authorities stressed Friday that their probe is far from complete.
"The case is continuing under active investigation," said Renee Huie, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources. "We are going to interview other children and other families. If it appears that other children have been abused, then we would seek an order from a judge" to remove them from their homes.
"This is a highly unusual situation," Huie said, noting that investigators are concerned that as many as 60 children may have been abused.
"Given the pastor's view on discipline in the church," she said, "we thought it would be wise to continue to investigate and see if others have been abused."
The alleged abuse came to the attention of authorities on Feb. 28, when a first-grader at Atlanta's C.W. Hill Elementary complained to his teacher about back pain.
The teacher found welt marks and called in social workers, said Seth Coleman, an Atlanta Public Schools spokesman. After an investigation, three social workers came to the school on March 9 and took the first-grader, his younger and older sisters and three other children from another family, Coleman said.
A 7-year-old boy told detectives that his uncle whipped him with a "big switch" at the church while three other men held him down, according to a police report. The beating left him with bruises on his abdomen and back, the boy said.
A 10-year-old boy told police that an adult beat him on his back at the church as another adult held his arms and two men held his legs. The boy said that Allen, the pastor, was "watching and telling them when to stop," according to the police report.
None of the children who have been placed in foster homes required hospitalization, authorities said. But Georgia law defines child abuse as punishment that leaves welts or marks, Huie said.
Nevertheless, Allen said the lack of serious injury proves that no abuse occurred.
"One of the teachers that reported the allegation stated she noticed some red marks on one of the children," Allen said. "Now the policeman reported yesterday that the child was brutally beaten. Now it's reduced to red marks. ... The doctors didn't give him any medicine and said he did not need any treatment. It was not a severe beating."
The church has had all the children in its congregation examined by doctors, Allen said, and "the doctors haven't reported one case of abuse."
Allen, 68, founded the church about 35 years ago, and many of the members who gathered there Friday evening said that they grew up in the congregation. About 130 people, many of them children, regularly attend services there.
Allen said children from the congregation have been beaten at church, at school and in their homes. He said he tells parents to restrain their children "so that they would not hit the child in any vital spots to hurt the child."
Church members said the punishment is appropriate.
"We don't overly abuse our children," said Tabitha Houston, 18, who was married two years ago with what she described as Allen's "approval."
Houston's father, James Smith, said he ordered social workers off his property Friday after they threatened to take away his 11 children living at his home.
"My children are big," Smith said. "It's hard to whip them. Sometimes they move around." He denied abusing the children.
"It's the church they're after," he said of investigators. "I'm in the church. They're going after anything to get something on the church."
David Duncan, the father of the 10-year-old boy who described his beating to police, declined to answer questions about how his children were disciplined.
"The only thing I can say," Duncan said, "is, Jesus is Lord."
Staff writers Joshua B. Good, S.A. Reid and Ron Martz contributed to this report.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 21 March 2001
Pastor, 5 followers arrested in child beatings
By Joshua B. Good and Ron Martz
Atlanta police on Tuesday arrested a pastor and five members of his church while social workers took custody of 22 more children, alleging they ran the risk of being abused.
The pastor and four members of the House of Prayer were charged with cruelty to children for the beating of two boys, ages 7 and 10. Another church member was charged with battery and reckless conduct.
The older boy had open wounds on his stomach and right side, said Atlanta police Lt. Elizabeth Propes, commander of the youth crimes unit. The younger boy had welts on his stomach and back. The boys told police they were held down at church and beaten with sticks, switches and a belt.
Church members say they will continue to whip unruly children even if it means defying police and the courts. During the past two weeks, state social workers have taken 41 children from parents who belong to the House of Prayer on Hollywood Road in northwest Atlanta.
"No matter what the court says, we're going to obey God," said Charlie Ruth, a member of the church. "It's better to obey God than to obey man."
Backed by a court order and uniformed police, the state Department of Family and Children Services picked up 22 children late Monday and early Tuesday.
Of the children taken into state custody, investigators have found injuries from beatings on only the two boys, Propes said. The police lieutenant said her team of investigators decided to seek charges because of those injuries.
The other 39 children, from five families, were removed from their homes because of the risk of abuse, said Department of Human Resources spokesman Renee Huie.
House of Prayer Pastor Arthur Allen Jr. admitted he condones corporal punishment for children who misbehave. He said he is following biblical teachings but denies he or any parishioners abuse their children.
Allen and church members staged a protest rally in downtown Atlanta on Monday afternoon claiming the Department of Family and Children Services is conducting a "witch hunt."
Huie said homes have been found for 19 children from three families, but the 22 children ordered removed from their homes late Monday and early Tuesday by a juvenile court judge still have not been placed. They are being held at an undisclosed location until foster homes can be found for them.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 22 March 2001
Minister has prior conviction for beating
He's released from jail in latest case
By Alan Judd and Jill Young Miller
The Rev. Arthur Allen Jr., was sent to jail in 1993 after ordering members of his church to beat a 16-year-old girl with belts and then taunting the bleeding girl when she cried.
Now, the pastor of the House of Prayer church in northwest Atlanta is at the center of a massive abuse investigation that has led to the removal of 41 children from their parents' homes.
"He stood over me and said, 'I had you whining like a baby,'" the girl, Ivory Johnson, testified during a 1993 trial in DeKalb County State Court.
Allen admitted in court that he ordered the August 1992 beating - which he said may have lasted from 20 to 30 minutes. The beating continued, he testified, until the girl was "beaten into submission." The teenager had defied his authority, Allen said, and she "had to be beaten, or she would take over the church."
Allen, 68, said he and his church will be vindicated in the new case.
"I hope we are charged and I look forward to a trial by jury," he said Wednesday morning in Atlanta Municipal Court.
Allen was released from jail Wednesday, one day after he and five members of his church were arrested by Atlanta police on charges that they encouraged or participated in the beatings of two children last month. The others, and a seventh church member, Sharon Duncan, who turned herself in to authorities Wednesday, were expected to remain in jail overnight. Two of the six church members charged in the new case were convicted in 1993 along with Allen.
Earlier in the day, an Atlanta Municipal Court judge ordered Allen and five of the others to stand trial on the charges, which were filed after state social workers removed 41 children from the homes of church members.
The whippings were administered at the urging and direction of Allen, police Investigator C. Dean testified during the parents' preliminary hearing on the criminal charges. One parent, James Smith, told Judge Elaine Carlisle that the beatings were so common he had lost count of how many he had seen.
Children being punished were suspended in the air by their hands and arms and beaten with switches, sticks or belts, Dean said. Photographs shown to the parents in court showed welts that Dean said were between 1 and 3 inches long, including one she described as the shape of a belt buckle.
While acknowledging their punishment had left marks on the children, the parents denied that they had caused any injuries or that they had done anything wrong.
"I did nothing more than chastise my child in a reasonable fashion," said parent David Duncan Sr.
In interviews since news broke about the investigation, Allen has acknowledged that he encourages "whippings" for "unruly" children. But he has denied that the beatings constitute abuse.
Staff writers Michael Pearson, Ron Martz, Joshua B. Good and S.A. Reid contributed to this article.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 22 March 2001
Welfare officials acknowledge the value of spanking
By Ron Martz
State child welfare officials and House of Prayer parishioners may not agree on much, but they agree that spankings can be appropriate discipline. Where the two sides disagree is when spankings become abuse.
Members of the House of Prayer say their brand of corporal punishment is nothing more than an old-fashioned spanking. State officials say the "spankings" administered to at least two of the children in that church crossed the line.
"Spanking is supported," said David Hellwig, chief of the protective services unit for the state Division of Family and Children Services. "Parents have an absolute right to spank. But that's not the issue here."
D'Anna Liber, manager of DFCS' special investigative unit, said Georgia parents have a wide latitude in disciplining their children without state interference. The manual for state child protective services workers says: "Children need consistent discipline to develop into responsible adults. Parents have enormous freedom and control over decisions affecting their children, and they have the right to discipline and punish children as they determine appropriate. Law does not prohibit using corporal punishment."
Corporal punishment, the DFCS manual says, is "any physical punishment of a child to inflict pain as a deterrent to wrong doing. It may produce transitory pain and potential bruising. If pain and bruising are not excessive or unduly severe and result only in short-term discomfort, this is not considered maltreatment."
Where the line is crossed, Liber said, is when the discipline causes injuries to the child. "Once physical injury is left [on the child], it constitutes child abuse and we have to intervene," she said.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, GA, 23 March 2001
'Who's supposed to be the villain?'
Congregation backs minister's strong hand
By Alan Judd and Jill Young Miller
The Rev. Arthur Allen Jr. feels misunderstood.
He sits in the living room of his modest home in northwest Atlanta, surrounded by half a dozen members of his church, the House of Prayer. His 25-year-old wife, Trina, sits nearby with their new baby on her lap.
It's Wednesday evening, five hours after Allen, 68, has been released on bond from the Atlanta jail, where he was booked on charges of ordering the beatings of two young church members - two of the 41 whom the state has taken into protective custody.
"I've really been painted a monster," Allen says.
He eagerly shows two newspaper reporters a videotape that a member of his congregation shot this week as social workers and police officers took 10 children from the home of two church members. A man can be heard telling the children, "Y'all just trust in the Lord, and everything will work out." Screams pierce the tape's soundtrack, and children scuffle onscreen with police officers.
It's Elian Gonzalez, times 10.
Allen turns from the TV. "You tell me what that's doing to their minds," he says angrily. "Those children might not get over that. Look at that - dragging them out of their homes, screaming.
"And who's supposed to be the villain?" Allen asks the living room congregants.
"We are!" they answer in unison.
"And who's supposed to be the main villain?" he asks.
"You are!" they reply.
It's the answer he's looking for. In one week, Allen has gone from being the pastor of an obscure nondenominational church in a downtrodden part of Atlanta to a controversial figure in the national news, as many of the children of his 130-member congregation were taken from their homes.
Allen is a complex figure, a charismatic leader of a poor congregation who exerts enormous influence in the lives of his church members. He helps them buy homes, strengthen their marriages, improve their lives.
Outside his church, though, Allen hasn't found universal validation for his views, not only on disciplining children but also on other church matters, including his approving marriages for girls as young as 14. He has received little sympathy from state social services officials, who blame him for ordering systematic beatings with switches and belts that, in some cases, left welts and abrasions. And he has gotten little support from other ministers, even some who think the government may have overreacted in its mass seizing of so many church members' children.
"Lord knows, everybody interprets the Bible in different ways," says the Rev. Gerald Durley, pastor of the Providence Missionary Baptist Church and a prominent member of Concerned Black Clergy. But "I know of very few churches that use this type of behavior to discipline children."
Corporal punishment was a constant in Allen's early life. He grew up as a preacher's son in Chamblee, and both his parents whipped him, he says, usually with a belt.
"And I loved them for it," he says. "I thank God. It didn't convert me, but it slowed me down. I'd be like some of the young hoodlums today with a wasted life."
At Chamblee High School, where he played football, the principal made frequent use of a black strap. "Even though he whipped us, we still loved him."
After preaching in Baptist churches for several years, Allen started his own church in 1966 - "from scratch," he says. He sought members in some of Atlanta's most decrepit public housing projects - Perry Homes, East Lake Meadows, Hollywood Courts.
"All the people I dealt with were underprivileged. And the kids didn't have daddies. But when they come into the church, they were no longer underprivileged."
Allen bases the views he imparts to his congregation on his reading of the Bible, he says, specifically the King James Version, which is favored by charismatic and fundamentalist churches.
Allen professes faith that he will be vindicated.
"I believe the Lord is going to bring me through," he says. "I'm not for prison life. I'm just a bird - I like to fly free."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, GA, 23 March 2001
'They'd beat them for every simple little thing they'd do'
Jason Bates doesn't go to church anymore. The church of his childhood was a place for fear, not a house of prayer.
It was a place to be plucked from sleep for a whipping, for watching helplessly as his sisters' dresses were lifted to reveal their young bodies for a beating.
Bates, his mother, Linda, and several siblings are former members of the Rev. Arthur Allen's House of Prayer, the center of a child abuse investigation that has left seven worshippers facing criminal charges and 41 children in state custody.
"I get nervous just talking about it," Bates, 19, said Thursday, seven years after his mother took him out of the church.
Six of the seven church members accused of child cruelty and related charges have been released on bond pending trial. The seventh, Sharon Duncan, appeared in court Thursday on charges of reckless conduct and child cruelty. She was ordered held on $10,000 bail.
Child welfare investigators continued Thursday to question the 41 children taken from church members last week.
Nineteen of the children have been examined by four child abuse specialists at Hughes-Spalding Children's Hospital, led by Dr. Randell Alexander, director of the Morehouse School of Medicine Center for Child Abuse.
Alexander would not say if any of the children had signs of physical abuse. "We didn't hospitalize anybody, but beyond that I can't say much more."
The children were "reasonably outgoing," and "well-behaved, not stressed out." He said they watched cartoons and ate lunch during the examinations, which lasted about three hours, before being returned to state officials.
Allen has acknowledged using corporal punishment to steady unruly children, but denies claims of abuse. "The Bible gives me the right," he said.
A hearing was scheduled for this morning to determine whether to proceed with six child abuse claims dismissed Wednesday on a technicality. Hearings will be held in the next few weeks to determine whether children in the remaining cases were abused.
That question haunts Jason Bates, his sisters and his mother. Five siblings remain members of the church, although they weren't among those taken by the state.
"I can't imagine what they're going through," he said.
He said his years at the church were filled with unexpected beatings, sermons laced with curse words and a stern sense of order.
"They'd sometimes have kids back there lined up" for whippings, Bates said. "They'd beat them for every simple little thing they'd do."
His sister Joanna Bates said she was beaten when she was 12 after Allen accused her of being a prostitute. She protested being exposed to the congregation after the preacher lifted up her dress to spank her.
"'You're used to men seeing you,'" she quoted Allen as telling her.
Linda Bates took several of her children out of the church after Allen prohibited her from visiting Jason in the hospital after he suffered severe injuries in a fire.
"It was like a cult. He controlled everything," she said of Allen.
In a 1993 court case, Allen accused Linda Bates of involvement in suspicious injuries to her children. But Jason and Joanna Bates and another sister, Darcus, say their mother was a hero.
"I really thank God that my mother came and got me," Jason Bates said.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, GA, 26 March 2001
Kids get bad message
In response to Frederick Zak's defense of corporal punishment ("Corporal punishment part of black American culture" Viewpoints, March 23): I disagree completely with his presumption that a little physical punishment produces a better citizen.
Physical punishment simply sends the message that violence is an acceptable response to a situation. Nonviolent responses, such as restricting privileges, are a much better societal example.
Second, violent punishment enforces behavior by associating bad actions with fear of further violence. Once you remove the fear (as an adult) there is no barrier to the behavior. Contrast this with the instilling of values: A bad behavior is avoided because it is bad, not because you might be hurt if caught doing it.
Cohn, of Marietta, is president of a computer and networking service firm.
It's not about race
According to Frederick Zak, community parenting and spankings are part of the African-American heritage. So now, at the age of 47, I'm discovering that my Irish mother raised me and my sisters using African-American traditions. Many of us who grew up in the 1950s and '60s were raised by parents who had the same attitudes and practiced the same types of discipline. It's not a black thing; it's the way things were.
ELAINE SWEEZEY, Lawrenceville
Beatings not best lesson
If Frederick Zak honestly thinks that non-African-Americans never received corporal punishment growing up, then his understanding of those cultures is so lacking that he must have been living in a bubble. My Florida grandma gave us a knife and told us, "Cut your own switch and make sure it is green and flexible."
Teachers, even in white communities, used to use a paddle, holes and all. But they banned that because many of them, such as my junior high coach, were abusive.
Zak seems to indicate that all African-Americans who were beaten in their childhood are upstanding citizens and that those who were not are in prison. He knows an alarming percentage of inmates are African-American. How does he account for those figures, within his themes of corporal punishment being a part of African-American culture?
It doesn't wash. Perhaps teaching logic instead of beatings would have been a better life lesson.
Sutherland, a video producer, lives in Atlanta.
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