Will signing abuse papers come back to haunt FLDS?

Published: Sunday, May 25 2008 12:12 a.m. MDT

FLDS members wait outside the courthouse after Thursday's verdict. The ruling has been appealed.

Brian Connelly, Associated Press

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Desperate to be reunited with their children, many Texas FLDS parents signed family service plans that concede child abuse and neglect.

It's an admission that may come back to haunt them if criminal charges are ever filed accusing them of being abusive parents.

With Thursday's appellate ruling, the civil case against the families appears to be unraveling, but the criminal probe continues. Results from DNA testing on the parents and children are anticipated in the next week and could potentially link adult men to children of underage girls.

That is why several attorneys this past week appearing in status hearings in the Tom Green County Courthouse advised their clients to refuse to sign.

Both Stephanie Goodman and Gonzalo Rios were adamant that the FLDS parents they represent steer clear of the family service plans drafted by the state Department of Family and Protective Services.

"It could be construed in a criminal case that it is an admission that those are the things that happened on the ranch," Goodman said.

The plans crafted for the more than 450 children taken into custody by the agency in April include several mandates the families were to have followed in order to get their children back.

All the plans were identical and included the requirement that parents get counseling as it relates to child abuse and child sexual abuse.

That requirement, Rios said, immediately concedes child abuse and sexual abuse took place — a concession that would jeopardize a parent's rights in criminal court.

"You can't sign a document in one case that admits abuse and go to court on another case and say that you're innocent, that these things didn't happen. You can't have it both ways."

To the chagrin of state attorneys representing the child welfare agency and to the annoyance of the judge, Rios in hearings on Monday would not even let his client, Barbara Steed Jessop, verbally acknowledge that she had read the document. He told Judge Barbara Walther — the same judge who approved taking the children in early April — that his client had read and understood the plan, and he answered on her behalf.

"There's a criminal investigation that is ongoing, and my client is not in any way, shape or form agreeing with allegations contained in the plan," Rios told the judge.

The service plans in child welfare cases are like a contract between the parents and the agency, Goodman and Rios explained, and the parents they represent would have been legally bound to follow all their requirements.

They do not feel that a refusal to sign the plans puts their clients at a disadvantage but rather that action gives them bargaining power and lands them in a position to negotiate.

"I think it gives a client the leg up if you are going to request a jury trial or even have it before a judge quite honestly. They (her clients) are not going to sign some piece of paper and be held to every word and possibly be misconstrued as to whether they completed the task," Goodman said.

Goodman, a former prosecutor who now practices family and criminal law in San Angelo, said that by signing the service plans, her clients would been subjected to the "subjective" assessment by Child Protective Services as to compliance with the mandates.

"If you sign off on all these agreements in the service plans, then CPS can continue to beat them over the head as to what they did or did not do," she said.

Goodman represents one FLDS mother with two children in state custody and a couple from Canada who had children on the ranch. She said that was another inherent problem with the plans because her couple did not even get a chance to physically review the mandates in any depth.

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