Po­lyg­a­mist re­treat child cus­tody case re­sumes

Hun­dreds of chil­dren in­volved in dis­pute

The Covington News - - Religion - By Michelle Roberts

SAN AN­GELO, Texas — A court hear­ing to de­cide the fates of hun­dreds of chil­dren seized from a po­lyg­a­mist re­treat ground to a halt al­most as soon as it be­gan Thurs­day as hun­dreds of lawyers de­manded to study the first piece of ev­i­dence be­fore it could be in­tro­duced.

State Dis­trict Judge Bar­bara Walther called a re­cess 40 min­utes af­ter the hear­ing be­gan in what could be the na­tion’s largest child cus­tody case.

She wanted to al­low the 350 lawyers spread out in two build­ings to read the ev­i­dence and de­cide whether to ob­ject en masse or make in­di­vid­ual ob­jec­tions.

The hear­ing re­sumed about an hour later.

The lawyers are rep­re­sent­ing the 416 chil­dren and dozens of par­ents from the Yearn­ing For Zion ranch owned by the Fun­da­men­tal­ist Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter Day Saints, a rene­gade Mor­mon sect ac­cused of forc­ing un­der­age girls into polyg­a­mous mar­riages.

The 80-year-old Tom Green County court­room and a satel­lite court­room set up in a City Hall au­di­to­rium two blocks away were jammed with dozens of moth­ers from the re­treat, dressed in their iconic pas­tel prairie dresses and braided up­swept hair.

In the satel­lite court­room, about 175 peo­ple strained to see and hear a large pro­jec­tor set up on the au­di­to­rium’s stage, which of­fered a grainy live feed of the pro­ceed­ings with barely au­di­ble sound.

“I’m not in a po­si­tion to ad­vo­cate for any­thing,” com­plained Susan Hays, the ap­pointed at­tor­ney for a 2-year-old sect mem­ber.

The moth­ers in the pri­mary court­room were sworn in as wit­nesses, stand­ing and mum­bling their ‘I do’s’ in timid voices. As they sat silently, the flock of lawyers buzzed with mur­murs and popped up to make mo­tions or ob­ject as Walther tried to main­tain or­der.

But when prose­cu­tors tried to en­ter into ev­i­dence the med­i­cal records of three girls — two 17year-olds and an 18-year-old — the lawyers jumped to their feet and crammed the aisles try­ing to see the pa­pers. That’s when Walther called the re­cess.

Out­side, where satel­lite trucks lined the street in front of the court­house’s columned fa­cade, a man who said he was an FLDS fa­ther waved a photo of him­self sur­rounded by his four chil­dren, rang­ing in age from an in­fant to about 9.

“Look, look, look,” the fa­ther said. “Th­ese chil­dren are all smil­ing, we’re happy.”

Walther signed an emer­gency or­der nearly two weeks ago giv­ing the state cus­tody of the chil­dren af­ter a 16-year-old girl called an abuse hot line claim­ing her hus­band, a 50-year-old mem­ber of the sect, beat and raped her. The girl has yet to be iden­ti­fied.

Au­thor­i­ties raided the El­do­rado ranch and spent a week col­lect­ing doc­u­ments and disk drives that might pro­vide ev­i­dence of un­der­age girls be­ing mar­ried to adults.

The chil­dren, first taken to lo­cal shel­ters, were later moved to a his­toric fort and then to a domed coli­seum on the fairgrounds in San An­gelo. All but 27 ado­les­cent boys are stay­ing in the coli­seum and a nearby build­ing; the teenage boys are at a boys ranch near Amar­illo.

If the judge gives the state per­ma­nent cus­tody of the chil­dren, the child ser­vices agency will be­gin look­ing for fos­ter homes in a case that has al­ready stretched the le­gal re­sources of San An­gelo and the state’s child wel­fare sys­tem.

The cus­tody case is one of the largest in U.S. his­tory and in­volves chil­dren from 6 months to 17 years in age. Roughly 100 of the chil­dren are un­der age 4.

State of­fi­cials con­tend the chil­dren were be­ing phys­i­cally and sex­u­ally abused or were in im­mi­nent dan­ger of such abuse.

FLDS mem­bers say the state is per­se­cut­ing them for their faith and that their 1,700-acre Yearn­ing for Zion Ranch, with its soar­ing white tem­ple and log cabin-style houses, is sim­ply a home iso­lated from a hos­tile and sin­ful world.

They deny chil­dren were abused.

“It’s the fur­thest thing away from what we do here,” said Dan, a sect mem­ber who spoke at the com­pound Wed­nes­day but de­clined to give his last name be­cause he fears how it will af­fect his chil­dren in state cus­tody. “There’s noth­ing that’s more dis­liked and more trained against.”

A ma­jor is­sue will be how a home is de­fined — whether by the in­di­vid­ual house each child lived in or by the larger ranch, Hays said. Un­der Texas law, if sex­ual abuse is oc­cur­ring in a home and a par­ent does not stop it, then the par­ent can lose cus­to­dial rights.

The judge also must de­cide whether it’s in the best in­ter­est of chil­dren who have lived in­su­lated lives to be sud­denly placed into main­stream so­ci­ety, Hays said.

Typ­i­cally, each child would be given a sep­a­rate hear­ing, but given the num­ber of cases, it’s likely the judge will have the state, the chil­dren’s at­tor­neys and the par­ents’ at­tor­neys make con­sol­i­dated pre­sen­ta­tions, at least ini­tially, said Harper Estes, pres­i­dent-elect of the state bar.

If the judge gives the state per­ma­nent cus­tody, it will have an enor­mous chal­lenge in find­ing homes for the chil­dren.

The agency has re­lied on vol­un­teers to help feed the chil­dren, laun­der linens and pro­vide crafts and games for them in a dorm­style set­ting for the past two weeks. But the agency will have to find stable homes and try to de­ci­pher sib­ling re­la­tion­ships that should be pre­served if it gets per­ma­nent cus­tody.

Even iden­ti­fy­ing groups of sib­lings has been chal­leng­ing so far.

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