Hearings to begin in polygamist sect cases

Court faces fight over custody for more than 400

The sect's sprawling Texas ranch was raided last month. Judges will decide what parents must do to get children back. The sect's sprawling Texas ranch was raided last month. Judges will decide what parents must do to get children back. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michelle Roberts
Associated Press / May 19, 2008

SAN ANTONIO - The more than 400 children, from newborns to teens, forced from a polygamist sect's sprawling ranch during a raid six weeks ago and into foster care have been treated as a single group of abused and at-risk children.

Starting today, judges will filter the unruly, chaotic custody dispute into hundreds of individual cases to determine what the parents must do to get their children back or whether their parental rights will be permanently severed.

This is standard operating procedure for family court, but these are hardly standard cases.

First, these families comprise at least 168 mothers and 69 fathers, reflecting the polygamy in the renegade Mormon sect.

And even as the hearings begin, the state hasn't matched more than 100 of the children with mothers. The first of court-ordered DNA test results won't be back for two to four weeks.

Two dozen of the children may actually be adults; authorities are still trying to sort out the ages of nearly half the teen girls they've had in foster care facilities. Last week, they conceded that two women who gave birth since the raid are actually 18 and 22.

While the hearings are intended to individualize the massive case, a spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints complained that the state has done just the opposite.

FLDS spokesman Rod Parker said the plans offered by Child Protective Services for what the parents must do to get their children returned are identical except for the case number.

The agency "is still trying to treat them as a group," Parker said. "They really aren't focused on the individual needs."

Agency spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said the state is using a template for the plans but insists the cases be individualized in coming weeks.

"The issues in these plans are very similar, which is why we were able to use a template as a starting point," she said.

In a sample provided to the Associated Press, the plan does not outline a specific allegation of abuse involving a particular child and only repeats broad accusations made previously of the entire sect.

The template calls for parents to do things like "establish safe living arrangements" and "follow the recommendations of professionals who will be working with you to develop the skills necessary to work with your child."

The template plan does not require them to renounce polygamy or to offer guarantees that their children will not be pushed into underage or polygamous marriages or teen pregnancies.

Meisner said that with so many cases, "it certainly requires a great deal of juggling." But she said the agency is committed to seeing every child treated individually.

It won't be easy. All five of the courtrooms in the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo will be used for two hearings a day over three weeks.

State District Judge Barbara Walther, who ruled last month that FLDS children should be placed in foster care, will hear cases with the help of four other judges.

In all, the state has 463 children in its custody, including 10 who are believed to be those of the sect's jailed leader and prophet Warren Jeffs. Jeffs was convicted in Utah of being an accomplice to rape in the marriage of a 14-year-old to a 19-year-old.

The FLDS children were removed from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado during a raid that began April 3 after someone called a domestic abuse hot line claiming to be a pregnant 16-year-old abused by a middle-age husband. The girl has never been found and authorities are investigating whether the calls were a hoax.

Child welfare authorities seized the children, arguing there was widespread abuse by FLDS parents who forced underage girls into marriage and sex and trained boys to become future perpetrators. FLDS members deny any abuse.

The first custody hearing was a legal circus as hundreds of lawyers crammed into a courtroom and nearby auditorium linked by video to represent the individual children and parents. The hearing spawned an avalanche of constitutional claims from parents.

Walther said she would do everything she could to avoid another mass proceeding, but lawyers for the parents say it is unlikely the upcoming hearings will give any real opportunity for the return of children.

"There's no opportunity for the mothers to battle against the idea that the kids should have been taken away in the first place," said Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid lawyers who represent 48 mothers in the case.

Any chance at reversal of the initial custody decision probably comes from one of a number of appeals and claims pending in other courts.

Two claims pending before an appellate court in Austin ask it to force individual consideration of the removals and to examine whether the state fulfilled its obligation to make removal from the home a last resort.

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