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Domestic CP - May 2001
Atlanta Constitution, Georgia, 22 May 2001
Removal of children is defendedBy Ron Martz
For more than two months, Georgia's child welfare agency and members of a small Atlanta church have been the focus of an increasingly acrimonious debate over the difference between corporal punishment and child abuse. The Rev. Arthur Allen and his House of Prayer members contend their method of disciplining children with whippings is perfectly legal and, in fact, sanctioned by the Bible. But the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services says some of the punishment crossed the line into abuse. When DFCS workers arrived at parishioners' homes to place their children in foster care, things got ugly. Televised scenes of screaming children tussling with police and being led away in handcuffs outraged many, including some elected officials. Today at the state Capitol, the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus will have a hearing into how DFCS has handled the House of Prayer situation. Last week Wilfred Hamm, state director of social services for DFCS, sat down for an interview on the House of Prayer. Hamm, who is responsible for child protective services, foster care and special investigations, defended the actions of DFCS workers in the removal of 49 children of church members, and clarified the state's position on use of corporal punishment. Here are excerpts:
Q: What's the state's policy on corporal punishment and when it goes from punishment to abuse?
A: Corporal punishment is acceptable. In looking at this case, what we're talking about is abuse and cruelty to children, when an excessive amount of force is used that injures a child and leaves abrasions, bruises and marks.
Q: Isn't that a rather subjective judgment, defining that line between discipline and abuse?
A: It is, but I would rather have a live child than a dead or seriously injured child. Q: Have your workers documented specific instances of abuse either in the homes of House of Prayer members or in the church? A: It's been documented in the church. A couple of children told (us) about how they were suspended in the air and beaten, relatively severely from the pictures we saw. That's a practice we must condemn because that's a practice that does harm to the children.
Q: Have you done a top-to-bottom review of how Fulton County DFCS has handled this case and, if so, what did you find? A: We haven't done a formal review. We have been having informal discussions. Thus far, Fulton County has done an outstanding job in responding to the situation from investigations to placement of children in appropriate foster homes. This has overtaxed their system, but they have been extremely responsive.
Q: Are you satisfied, based on the information you have seen, that the recommendations made by Fulton County DFCS to the Juvenile Court were of sufficient gravity to warrant these children being removed from their homes? A: From what I have seen, yes. Our special investigations unit was also involved in the investigations.
Q: Critics of DFCS are saying that what you are doing in the House of Prayer situation is an overreaction to the negative publicity the agency has received as a result of the Terrell Peterson case (Terrell was a 5-year-old Atlanta boy who died after reports of abuse and neglect to Fulton DFCS). Do you think the agency overreacted? A: Definitely not. You look at the Terrell Peterson situation, which was a catastrophe, and one could only wish that it had not happened. You look at this particular situation; we have a case where we got a referral --- a complaint --- from the school. We investigated it and we substantiated it, which means we had to act and we had to ensure that these children were going to be safe. Once a case is substantiated, we normally work with the parents to develop a safety plan that parents usually agree to and in most cases the children do not have to be removed. What's so unusual about this case is that the parents have not asked to visit their children. . . . When you get a situation where you're not getting cooperation, it makes it very difficult on us and what decisions we have to make so that that child can get back home. Our first goal is always reunification. . . . But safety is of paramount importance. We want these children to be safe and we want assurances from the families. This isn't assurances from Rev. Allen; we need assurances from these families that these children are going to be safe.
Q: In looking at how you handled the last removal, do you think there' s anything that could have been done differently by DFCS to mitigate the circumstances and the emotional confrontation? A: In a situation like that it probably would have been more prudent if the judge had ordered the families to surrender the children to the court and therefore we could have prevented the scene we saw. From our perspective the Atlanta Police Department acted with restraint and they responded proportionally. We had a situation, unfortunately, where parents told children to resist. Q: One of the claims of the church members is that the children are being abused in foster care. Do you have any evidence of that? A: That's totally nonsensical. Children are not being abused in foster care. Let's be very clear on that. When we had that situation that took place at the shelter with the three workers, we indicated that we would not tolerate children being abused, children being mishandled. We terminated three workers in that situation. We have zero tolerance for that. Another rumor is that there are bounties that DFCS workers are being paid for each child from the House of Prayer that they bring into care. That's totally ridiculous. There were allegations that a child was not getting medication and that a child did not have food to eat. That's bogus. . . . Our concern is to get beyond that and to get these parents engaged with their children and get their children back home. It does no one any good to have accusation after accusation. These children are monitored 24 hours a day. . . . This is a very high-profile situation and anything these children need, these children are getting.
Q: Even though the families are not working with DFCS to create a safety plan, is DFCS developing plans so that if the parents agree to cooperate they can get started immediately? A: You need the family. It's a joint agreement between the case manager and the family. So that can't take place right now. What is taking place now, where we couldn't place siblings together, there are constant family gatherings taking place. The foster parents have been heroic in this situation. We have brought them together to ensure that the children are getting the services and the resources that they need. Children come together on a weekly basis. We encourage phone calls between siblings. We have also had relatives visit. One of the problems we're having is that relatives fear there could be retribution from the House of Prayer if they are cognizant that visits are being made by them. But some relatives have expressed a very strong interest in parenting these children.
Q: Why has this escalated to the point it has? A: Because the reverend has a platform that has been given to him where he can talk about other issues like abortion and homosexuality. He is using this as his forum. What I think he has forgotten about is the children. Unfortunately it appears his children are being used as pawns. Our hope would be to get this out of the media and get the parents to come forward and engage with us so that their children can go back. As long as it's front page and the leading story and the minister is able to get his views across, I think this will continue. If the cameras go off, he'll be more apt to negotiate.
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