Foster care for Jeffs' apparent child bride

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 20 2008 12:14 a.m. MDT

Betty Jessop, right, leaves the courthouse with other FLDS members including Barbara Jessop, left. One of Barbara Jessop's children was placed in state custody.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

SAN ANGELO, Texas — A 14-year-old girl believed to have been married to Fundamentalist LDS Church leader Warren Jeffs is back in foster care.

But her 11-year-old brother will remain with his mother, a judge here ruled.

"The court is concerned that the mother is unable to provide assurances she'd be able to protect the child in the future," Texas 51st District Judge Barbara Walther said while making her ruling Tuesday.

The decision to put the girl in state custody for a third time ended a contentious custody battle over allegations of underage marriages and accusations that Barbara Jessop was unable to protect her children from abuse in the Utah-based polygamous sect.

Three other families facing the threat of having their children put in foster care struck deals with Texas Child Protective Services shortly after Jessop lost custody of her daughter.

Texas child welfare authorities allege that at age 12, Jessop's daughter was married to Jeffs. Photos depicting Jeffs kissing the girl were entered into courtroom evidence.

Barbara Jessop, a wife of YFZ Ranch leader Merril Jessop, left the courthouse showing little emotion. FLDS member and spokesman Willie Jessop called the decision "barbaric."

"Who can tear families apart when there's clearly no evidence? They haven't had any evidence for years that there's been any marriages at all, let alone anything to justify what she's done," he said Tuesday. "It's barbaric."

Barbara Jessop's lawyer said he plans to appeal the judge's decision.

CPS claimed that Jessop was not doing anything to protect her children from men involved in underage marriages. Two of her husband's sons have been indicted on charges of sexual assault involving marriages to underage girls, and two daughters were married underage, CPS alleges in court documents.

"We need to take these children out of that environment and put them in a safer environment where they are safe from indoctrination," said CPS attorney Jeff Schmidt.

Jessop's lawyer, Gonzalo Rios, argued there was no evidence the girl was being abused since she had been returned to her mother.

"They're alleging things they didn't put us on notice about," Rios said. "It's fundamentally unfair."

CPS complained they made efforts to visit Jessop's Converse, Texas, home with no success. She also never returned calls and would not make the children available for interviews. Rios countered that Jessop was the only mother not offered a family service plan, unlike other mothers, and was essentially told to give up her children or go to court.

While making her ruling, Walther was critical of CPS. She glared at agency representatives while ordering them to set up parenting classes, psychological evaluations and home assessments for Jessop in the next 30 days.

Those requirements were part of the original deal Texas reached with many of the parents of the FLDS children when they were returned following a pair of court rulings. Texas CPS removed 440 children from their homes on the YFZ Ranch as part of an investigation into sexual and physical abuse there.

Jessop's hearing took a bizarre turn when she refused to answer dozens of questions on the witness stand, invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Her attorney said she is facing a criminal inquiry but acknowledged that her refusal to answer may not have helped her in the civil case.

"It probably did (hurt her)," Rios said.

Rios rested the case without calling any witnesses on Tuesday. Merril Jessop did not appear in court, and the judge ordered Jessop's children have no contact with him.

Court-appointed lawyers for Barbara Jessop's children expressed concerns about abuse allegations but said they wanted to stay with their mother.

"He's a happy kid, healthy kid," said Larry Hance, an attorney for Jessop's 11-year-old son. "His wishes are to be with his mother."

An independent group appointed by the courts to oversee the case on behalf of the children sought to have both children in foster care.

"We are not convinced Ms. Jessop can and will protect the children," said Valerie Trevino with Court Appointed Specialty Advocates (CASA).

CPS sought to place seven children in foster care, arguing their mothers failed to protect them from men involved in underage marriages.

The judge agreed to give Ellen Grace Young temporary custody of her 9- and 11-year-old daughters while allowing their father, Nephi Barlow, visitation.

"We have to work within the system. That's all we can do now. I think this lady and mother is a wonderful and good mother and she should keep the children with her," Barlow told the Deseret News.

Barlow is estranged from the FLDS Church, while court documents say Ellen Young was remarried to Merril Jessop. Young did not comment as she left the courthouse.

In the agreement, Young agreed to protect her daughters "from entering into a spiritual union/marriage until each of them respectively is of legal age."

A second deal involving the 13-year-old daughter of Amy Rose Johnson lets the girl stay with her mother, but she was ordered to keep her child away from her father, Orval Johnson, or Wendell Loy Nielsen. Johnson is currently married to Nielsen, who court documents allege was involved in underage marriages.

The judge at first refused to sign off on a deal involving children of FLDS community physician Lloyd Hammon Barlow until he showed up to court. Barlow is currently facing criminal charges of failure to report child abuse.

After a brief recess and some hurried phone calls, Barlow appeared in court and signed the papers alongside his wife, Alice Faye Barlow, letting the children stay with their mother.

Barlow will be allowed supervised visitation each week and his two girls, ages 5 and 13, can visit the YFZ Ranch with permission from CPS and if it is supervised by CASA.

Barlow declined to comment to reporters as he left the courthouse.

"Not at this time, thank you," he said.


E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com

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