Adopted Liberian girls: Judge reopens custody case
BY ANN KELLEY
FAIRVIEW — Advocates for four Liberian-born sisters left the Major County Courthouse last week downhearted after a judge decided the girls would remain in the custody of two convicted child abusers.
Attorney Melvin Johnson, right, hugs the Rev. Tabe Brownell after a judge reopened a child welfare case involving four Liberian-born girls. Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman
That same group Wednesday celebrated a different judge’s decision to reopen the controversial child welfare case.
"Praise God,” said the Rev. Tabe Brownell of Oklahoma City, as he held his hands in the air.
"This has always been about fighting for what’s best for these children. Now I think people are starting to take notice of that.”
Women cried, men shook hands and hugs were exchanged after an hour-long, closed hearing where it was decided the case was not over.
Major County Associate District Judge Vinson Barefoot closed the child welfare case March 29, leaving the girls in the custody of their parents, Ardee Tyler, 51, and Penny Tyler, 45.
The couple were convicted in February of abusing a fifth adopted child, and given a 10-year suspended prison sentence.
Ardee Tyler’s natural son, Jeremy Tyler, has since testified he was brutally abused by his father and stepmother as a child.
Barefoot’s ruling prompted State Attorney General Drew Edmondson and Major County District Attorney Hollis Thorp to request a judicial review. Harmon County Associate Judge Mike Warren was assigned to the case.
The children remain with the Tylers, but the state attorney general’s office is preparing a request to have them moved from the home while the case is being re-examined, said Melvin Johnson, attorney for the girls.
"As long as they are in the home, I believe they are in danger,” Johnson said.
Edmondson also plans to seek termination of the Tylers’ parental rights, said Charlie Price, spokesman for the attorney general’s office.
The girls, ages 4-16, were adopted by the Tylers in 2005 from an orphanage in Liberia.
Johnson said Warren was critical of the investigation done by the state Department of Human Service, using words like "deplorable” to describe how it had been handled. The judge also complimented the young victim and Jeremy Tyler for being brave enough to come forward about their abuse, Johnson said.
"I think we’re finally going to get a fair shake,” Johnson said. "This judge seems knowledgeable about the law and willing to listen.”
Warren is a member of judicial oversight committees on juvenile justice and uniform orders. He also helped overhaul juvenile and children’s codes in Oklahoma statutes.
The child welfare case has been lingering for more than two years.
Thorp, the district attorney, said he has worked with DHS officials in the area for 35 years without problems, but thinks some of the issues may have arisen because there was a change in staffing in the middle of the case.
He said the children will have close DHS monitoring and counseling.
A group of locals calling themselves "prayer warriors” have been advocates for the girls during the entire case. They gather weekly to pray for the girls and have spearheaded efforts to keep authorities on top of the case.
Linda Rous, a member of the group, said from the beginning there was more DHS could have done.
"There have been so many cover-ups,” Rous said.
The Tylers have relinquished their parental rights to the adopted daughter they were convicted of abusing. She is living with relatives in another state who say they plan to adopt her.
Johnson said it’s his goal to reunite the children, but it will take time.
Johnson said the Tylers have poisoned the four girls against their sister, who came forward about the abuse.
The girl was tied to bedposts by her parents, forced to sleep outside in the cold and denied food for several days as punishment, according to court documents from the case.
She was molested by the Tylers’ natural son, Ashton Tyler, 21, who is serving a two-year prison sentence for the crime.
The couple’s natural daughter was convicted of misdemeanor assault and battery for striking the same girl.
Johnson said he believes the abuse was not limited to one child, and once out of the home the other girls may speak out.
For now, they’re saying they want to stay with the Tylers, he said.
"They were brought over here for a better life,” Rous said. "Unfortunately, they don’t even know it’s available to them.”