Church members sue city, Barnes and DFCS

House of Prayer families are seeking $100 million in punitive damages from the city of Atlanta, Atlanta police, former Gov. Roy Barnes, the Division of Family and Children Services and others in a sweeping lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court.

The lawsuit is on behalf of dozens of House of Prayer children who were taken into state custody in 2001. It alleges they were harmed by police and DFCS. "We're here today because those children were abused," said Lucinda Perry, a Douglasville attorney representing the families.

The suit comes a day after arrest warrants were issued for the pastor of the church and two members of his congregation, their attorney said Thursday.

Probation officers allege that the Rev. Arthur Allen Jr. and church members David and Sharon Duncan violated terms of their probation, lawyer Manny Arora said.

But Arora didn't know the basis of the warrants, he said, because he couldn't get copies of the warrants by the end of business Thursday.

He said he expects the church members to report to the Fulton County Jail after Arora learned more.

A Division of Family and Children Services spokesman said the agency is investigating an allegation about Allen but declined to elaborate. "I can't give details," Jed Nitzberg said.

Sharon Duncan said she and her husband, David, expect to go to jail Monday, after reporting to their probation officer. She said they had gone to a court-ordered anger management class but refused to sign a document saying they would only hand-spank their children when physically disciplining them.

"They want to lock us up on that," she said. She and her husband, parents of 11, are willing to return to jail rather than sign, she said.

Allen could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Arora said he would seek a court hearing to "determine the validity" of the warrants.

In October, a jury convicted Allen and four other church members, including the Duncans, of cruelty to children for the whippings of two boys, then 7 and 10, at the small northwest Atlanta church in February 2001.

The judge ordered them to restrict spanking to their own children, to use only an open hand during such punishment and to complete a counseling program. He banned them from bringing children to the House of Prayer for punishment and from advising or assisting other parents with punishment.

Probation officers for the Duncans and Allen could not be reached for comment late Thursday.