It all started in early February when a 7-year-old Atlanta boy complained to his teacher about a sore back. The teacher found welts, and notified Georgia's Division of Family and Children Services. DFCS investigators said they were surprised to discover that the child's beating had taken place not at home but at a church-the independent House of Prayer in a poor part of the city, northwest of downtown.
They said that parents and church leaders had beaten scores of children under the supervision of the church's pastor, Arthur Allen Jr., who served 30 days in jail in 1993 for child abuse after ordering a church member to beat her teenage daughter for alleged sexual misconduct. Investigators said some children had bruises and welts, and were at risk of more physical abuse in their homes and at church because of church teachings. They said some children told them two or three church members would hold a child upright while another adult whipped the child with a belt-at the pastor's bidding.
Police arrested the pastor and five church members on charges they encouraged or participated in the beating of two children; a sixth member turned herself in. A court ordered them to stand trial for felony child abuse (a date was still pending at press time). By the end of March, child welfare workers had removed 41 children from five families in the 140-member congregation and placed them in "protective" custody in foster care and group shelters.
For the 12-year-old son of James Smith, it was a terrifying ordeal. Armed with a Juvenile Court judge's order, social workers removed him and 10 other children from the Smith home on March 28. He was one of 22 children taken to the Fulton County Children's Shelter. The boy threatened to run away, and a scuffle ensued, a spokesman for the DFCS said. He sustained bruises on his face and chest in the scuffle. The DFCS this month fired the two men who restrained the boy, along with a veteran senior group supervisor accused of failing to report the incident promptly. The three, who had no previous complaints in their records, also were arrested on charges of battery and reckless conduct.
At the end of a two-day hearing on March 28, Judge Sanford Jones decreed the children should remain in foster care for up to a year or until their parents agreed to accept certain conditions. Among them: Parents must spank only with hands and leave no marks; the discipline must be administered at home, not at the church; other church members cannot participate in the whippings; parents must stop allowing girls under age 16 to marry.
The nine parents before him said the conditions were "unacceptable," and they walked out of the courtroom without their children. Visibly stunned, Judge Jones said he hated "to see these children jeopardized by what I consider to be a cult."
Mr. Allen, a 68-year-old Korean War veteran who founded the black church 35 years ago, told reporters the Bible gives parents the authority to "whip" unruly children. But, he insists, whipping "is the last resort." Parents in interviews said they respect his wisdom and judgment, and they seek his counsel regarding discipline.
They also say he genuinely-and generously-cares about them. He has dipped into his own funds to provide everything from food and clothing to housing, property, and cars for some of them. Although an ordained Baptist minister, Mr. Allen worked as a landscaper and house painter most of his life and never took a salary from the church. As for his own family life, Mr. Allen's first wife, Mary, died of liver cancer a year ago; they were childless. Three days later, he married a 25-year-old divorcee in the church with five children under age 7. A baby was born to them in January.
Mr. Allen acknowledges that he approves teen marriages in certain cases. Young girls are "not going to whore in this church," he says. If they are sexually active, he adds, "I suggest marriage." He has traveled with parents and their 14-year-olds to Alabama, where girls can be married that young. In Georgia, the minimum age is 16, and he has 16- and 17-year-old mothers in his congregation.
At a court hearing April 3, the judge offered to permit a 17-year-old mother to go home with her father, James Smith. But Mr. Smith balked, saying the girl belonged with her husband. The girl told the judge she would rather go back to the foster home than live with her husband. The judge agreed. He also ordered her 16-year-old sister, a parent, to remain in state custody because her husband is in prison, and she has no means of support.