DFCS to take 10 more kids from members of Atlanta

State child welfare officials said Monday they plan to remove at least 10 more youngsters from their home because of the risk of abuse as their investigation into the discipline practices of members of an Atlanta church widens.

Department of Human Resources spokesman Andy Boisseau said a Fulton County Juvenile Court judge ordered the children taken into state custody after their mother refused to stop disciplining them for two days or to turn them over to authorities.

The 10 were expected to be picked up some time Monday night Boisseau said, adding that additional children from at least one other family also may be taken into state custody.

During the past two weeks, the Fulton County Department of Family and Children Services has removed 19 children ranging in age from 10 years to 5 months from three different families who attend the independent House of Prayer church in northwest Atlanta.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr., acknowledged during the weekend that he encourages corporal punishment for unruly children.

On Monday, members of the House of Prayer staged a protest downtown accusing DFCS of conducting a "witch hunt" against the church. More than 100 men, women and children --- some of whom were bundled up in strollers --- marched on the steps of the state Capitol and in front of Atlanta City Hall to call attention to their battle.

"They've blown this out of proportion," said Allen. "DFCS is now on a witch hunt. They are trying to find everything they can on the House of Prayer. We want the attention of the governor and the state Legislature."

DHR spokeswoman Renee Huie said the investigation into possible abuse has expanded since initial reports became public last week.

"Based on reports we've received since we took the original 19 into custody, a lot of people familiar with the church have called. We have investigated their reports and substantiated a lot of actions and we have petitioned the court to take more children," Huie said.

Atlanta police also are investigating reports of abuse at the church on Hollywood Road, but no charges had been filed as of Monday night.

Huie said alleged abuse of only two youngsters, a 7-year-old boy and a 10-year-old boy from different families, had been substantiated. The 7-year-old first-grader had complained to his teacher at C.W. Hill Elementary School about back pain and welts that were discovered on his back, according to Seth Coleman, a spokesman for Atlanta Public Schools.

"Those two had been whipped in the church with a number of different folks involved," Huie said.

Boisseau said information obtained from the children and other church members by DFCS investigators indicate that the children who misbehave are called on to "confess their sins" in front of the congregation.

"As I understand it, a few members will then hold the child down and a whipping is administered," Boisseau said.

Huie said that Georgia law interprets abuse as any punishment that leaves "marks, bruises or welts on a child."

Other children in the two boys' families were removed from the homeS and placed in foster care because of the risk of abuse, according to Huie.

"(The boys) spoke to us about another child in another family. When we went to that family to interview them, that family gave up the children voluntarily," Huie said.

Allen and church members defend the discipline as Bible-based and something that unruly children need to bring them into line. In 1993, Allen was given a 30-day jail sentence for child abuse in connection with the punishment of a church member's daughter.

Allen insists that his 130-member House of Prayer, which had its beginnings 35 years ago as a home-based Bible study class, isn't trying to break the law in its support of corporal punishment.

Staff writer S.A. Reid contributed to this article.