Church threatens to sue DFCS

Jairus Barnett wants the state to release one of the 41 children seized in a massive abuse investigation at a northwest Atlanta church.

She's his wife.

Priscilla Barnett, 17, who married about a year ago, was at her father's home on March 19 when state social workers took her and 12 other minors into protective custody. Among the others was her sister, Jamie Cheatham, 16, who is also married and is the mother of a 5-month-old boy. The baby also was taken into custody.

Members of the House of Prayer, the church on which the abuse investigation centers, cited the sisters' cases Monday as they took the offensive against the state's social services agency. They said they plan to file a lawsuit if the sisters are not released.

The Division of Family and Children Services "has kidnapped two married adults from our church," said the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr., the pastor of the House of Prayer and a key figure in the investigation. Standing beside Jairus Barnett during a news conference in the parking lot of a state office building on Bankhead Highway, Allen added: "They have kidnapped this man's wife out of her daddy's home. . . . He's here to ask DFCS to return his wife back to him, who he is legally married to."

The threat of the lawsuit is the latest development in the case, which has drawn national publicity to the previously obscure nondenominational congregation of 130 people on Hollywood Road. Authorities allege that church members have systematically beaten their children, under the direction of their pastor.

A spokeswoman for DFCS declined to respond to the threat, noting that a Juvenile Court judge is scheduled to conduct hearings today into whether social workers were justified in removing the 41 children from their homes.

"I can't comment on the different kids who are in care or give any characteristics of them," said Renee Huie of DFCS. "The court is the one that's going to decide these questions."

Allen, one of seven church members facing charges of cruelty to children, said Priscilla Barnett was "emancipated" by a Juvenile Court judge last year, giving her the right to live outside her father's jurisdiction. The same should apply to Jamie Cheatham, he said.

"These two sisters are not children," he said.

Priscilla and Jairus Barnett were "temporarily" separated when she was taken into custody, Allen said. Cheatham's husband is in jail, he added.

After their news conference concluded late Monday afternoon, Allen, Jairus Barnett and eight other church members marched to the front door of the state office building that houses some DFCS offices, planning to demand that the sisters be released. But it was after 5 p.m., and the doors were locked.

"We waited too late," Allen said as news cameras recorded his futile effort. "But we'll be back."