LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A state official says six girls removed from an evangelical compound over the weekend were taken into custody because they were in immediate danger.
"We did make the decision to remove the children that we felt were in harm's way or in imminent danger," said Arkansas Department of Human Services spokeswoman Julie Munsell.
Investigators have been interviewing the children from the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries complex, which was raided Saturday by state and federal agents looking for evidence that children were molested.
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Munsell said the state must decide by Tuesday to either ask a Miller County judge to grant the state temporary custody or return the children to their families.
To continue to hold the children, the state has to petition a court for custody. A probable cause hearing has to be held within five days of the petition. The hearing would be conducted in private as a juvenile matter.
State officials are now trying to identify the parents of some of the children and are trying to sort through calls the agency has received from people claiming to be their guardians.
"We've been fielding lots of phone calls from relatives, some claiming to be parents and some claiming to be extended family," Munsell said. "We are asking for those relatives or those claiming to be parents to present identification so we can match the children to those who have the parental right."
Tony Alamo told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday that no child pornography was generated at the ministry but that the age of consent is puberty when it comes to sex. He said he didn't promote marriage of underage girls.
Munsell said the youngest of the six girls in custody is 10 years old and the oldest is 17. Munsell said she did not know how many other children were at the complex beside nine that were interviewed.
A child psychologist not involved in the Alamo case said that investigators will have to be careful interviewing the minors, particularly because some of them may have been taught to believe that any abuse that may have occurred was not wrong.
"If they don't believe it was abusive, that may be truly what their reality is at this point," said Dr. Janice Church, assistant director of the Family Treatment Program at Arkansas Children's Hospital. "It's going to take a lot of cautious interviewing and careful relationship-building just to get them to distinguish between reality and what they may have been programmed or taught to believe."
Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley, who is not involved in the case, said the biggest obstacle in handling abuse cases like the Alamo case is getting children to talk in detail about what happened without traumatizing them again.
"You want to get good usable information from the children, but by the same token you wouldn't want to exacerbate the situation by questioning them over and over again," Jegley said.