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Child welfare worker describes FLDS ranch as 'scary environment'

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 12:20 p.m. MDT

San Angelo resident Bill McNurlen watches FLDS women and their attorneys walk from the Tom Green County Court House to San Angelo city hall for the FLDS custody hearing today. (Tim Hussin, Deseret News) San Angelo resident Bill McNurlen watches FLDS women and their attorneys walk from the Tom Green County Court House to San Angelo city hall for the FLDS custody hearing today. (Tim Hussin, Deseret News)
SAN ANGELO, Texas — A child protective services supervisor took the stand this afternoon providing details for the first time about her encounter with FLDS members on the night of the raid.
Angie Voss testified she was escorted onto the YFZ Ranch in nearby Eldorado the night of April 3 by law enforcement officers. She was accompanied by a dozen case workers investigating complaints initially lodged by a 16-year-old girl named Sarah.
The girl had called a domestic violence hotline a few days earlier saying she was spiritually married to an older man who beat her, forced her to have sex, and held her at the ranch against her will. The caller said she had an 8-month-old baby and was several weeks pregnant with her second child. Voss said investigators hoped to find her among what they believed were about 150 people on the ranch.
FLDS women stand in line with their attorneys to get into the Tom Green County Court House in San Angelo, Texas, for the FLDS custody hearing today. (Tim Hussin, Deseret News) FLDS women stand in line with their attorneys to get into the Tom Green County Court House in San Angelo, Texas, for the FLDS custody hearing today. (Tim Hussin, Deseret News)
In reality, there were more than 600 people there.
The supervisor testified that two men willingly let them inside after they had passed what she described as a guard tower several stories high with stairs leading to the top. She said there were men stationed at the tower.
She said she asked if there were any girls named Sarah living at the ranch. "They shook their heads and said there were no Sarahs living at the ranch," Voss said.
She and the caseworkers were then led into the school house, where they requested to talk with young women. She said soon after, the men on the compound began escorting young girls into individual classrooms. There were 15 girls in all.
When questioned by the state's attorney about the presence of men at the ranch, Voss said they were "everywhere. There were men standing at the doors, in the stairwells, in the schoolhouse," she testified.
FLDS woman stand in line with their attorneys to get into the Tom Green County Court House in San Angelo, Texas, for the FLDS custody hearing today. (Tim Hussin, Deseret News) FLDS woman stand in line with their attorneys to get into the Tom Green County Court House in San Angelo, Texas, for the FLDS custody hearing today. (Tim Hussin, Deseret News)
She said the girls filed in and appeared polite and respectful, but she was nevertheless concerned.
"It was a very scary environment — intimidating. I was afraid. I saw men all over. It felt like the schoolhouse was surrounded," she said, "It was a fearful kind of environment."
Six hours after being on the ranch and talking to a variety of girls, Voss said the decision was made to remove some of the children from the complex. During interviews with young women there, she and others learned that "there's no age too young to be spiritually united."
She said she also learned from the girls that the marriages were dictated by the prophet and that they should have as many babies as they could.
Voss also said she began to realize there were more children at the ranch than authorities initially believed. In the morning on April 4, officials decided to bus many of the children to a civic center four miles away in Eldorado. At that time, she said the situation at the ranch was becoming really tense.
An FLDS woman stands in line to get into the Tom Green County Court House in San Angelo, Texas, for the FLDS custody hearing today. (Tim Hussin, Deseret News) An FLDS woman stands in line to get into the Tom Green County Court House in San Angelo, Texas, for the FLDS custody hearing today. (Tim Hussin, Deseret News)
"I heard a report that a tank was coming on the property. Things were getting more scary to me. It was a situation of a very huge magnitude with so many law enforcement officers around," she testified. The case workers wanted to interview the children in an environment that didn't seem "so scary and dangerous."
Voss then went on to describe a crowd of mothers standing with their children who were uncooperative and did not wish to leave. It was then, Voss said, that Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran held up a cell phone and through the speaker, "Merril Jessop told the ladies they needed to cooperate and they just stopped" resisting.
When the state's attorney asked Voss how many in the crowd changed modes from being resistant to cooperative, she said it was about 30 or so. Jessop is the leader and bishop at the ranch.
An FLDS woman stands in line to get into the Tom Green County Court House in San Angelo, Texas, for the FLDS custody hearing today. (Tim Hussin, Deseret News) An FLDS woman stands in line to get into the Tom Green County Court House in San Angelo, Texas, for the FLDS custody hearing today. (Tim Hussin, Deseret News)
As the children were being bused to the civic center, authorities began to conduct house-to-house searches looking for additional children. That continued until nightfall. When asked why the search was halted, Voss said it was decided it wasn't safe.
"It had been reported that there were men in trees with night vision, that there were men videotaping me and the children, and it appeared there were men posted at every entrance. It's hard to describe," she said, pausing. "It was a feeling of being very unsafe."
Voss said in questioning the initial girls at the school, investigators learned "that there were Sarahs at the ranch and some of these girls they were talking about were underage with children."
When the state asked how many "Sarahs" were identified, Voss said there were five and three of those could have been the Sarah they were seeking.
FLDS men watch a line form in front of the Tom Green County Court House in San Angelo, Texas, for the FLDS custody hearing today. (Tim Hussin, Deseret News) FLDS men watch a line form in front of the Tom Green County Court House in San Angelo, Texas, for the FLDS custody hearing today. (Tim Hussin, Deseret News)
"We learned that a few of the girls know of the Sarah we were looking for and that she'd been seen last week and she had a baby," Voss said.
The supervisor's testimony was abruptly interrupted Thursday afternoon after several attorneys representing children and their mothers objected, claiming the information she was relaying could be construed as hearsay.
The state argued for allowing the testimony, saying it falls under a hearsay exception rule that allows certain statements to be accepted in court. It was at that point that Judge Barbara Walther granted a short recess to allow attorneys on both sides to huddle, designate a spokesperson, and articulate one large argument.
Voss later testified that records they expected to find during the raid were missing, including school attendance logs. She said many of the children could not or would not identify biological relationships, adding that the FLDS children "don't think that way" and said they would describe having a father of the house and several mothers.
The supervisor also noted that the children's names and ages changed, even from the time they took the short bus ride to the time they arrived at the civic center.
The custody cases being considered Thursday have been segregated into three separate blocks. The first block represents approximately 100 or so children, while the largest group of children in the second block. The third block represents 16 children. It's unclear how each group was separated.
Prior to Voss's testimony, Thursday's hearing had included arguments about nearly every other legal issue except custody of the 416 children who were removed from the Fundamentalist LDS Church ranch earlier this month and placed into state custody.
The authenticity of records, unlawful search and seizure, questions of venue, and of course, freedom of religion issues and other issues were all being raised Thursday.
Walther, who described herself as a "simple country judge," tried to juggle objections from many of the more than 350 attorneys representing all areas of Texas who are present to handle the monumental case. Every mother has legal representation as do the children.
One attorney who said he represented some of the members of the FLDS faith, described the hearing as an attack on the church. When the judge tried to explain it was about the reported activity of its members, he replied, "The church is the people."
An attorney for the state said, "This is not a case against the church. It is about child sex abuse — a pattern of sexual assault."
One issue argued extensively Thursday was the admissibility of documents that Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Danny Crawford was prepared to testify he had seized from the YFZ Ranch during a search on April 5. He said the documents, which were labeled Exhibit No. 4, were discovered in a safe in an office of one of the buildings at the ranch.
But several attorneys launched objections asserting that the documents are protected under a clergy-parishioner religious privilege. Called a "bishop's record," prosecutors said the documents contain a list of names and ages, including indications of underage pregnant girls.
Attorney Amy Hennington also argued that attorneys needed more time to review them. Another attorney cited objections to the documents' admissibility under the Fourth Amendment, saying they were procured by an unlawful search and seizure. He also raised concerns over the 14th Amendment, asserting due process claims.
The judge clearly began to express her frustration at the flurry of Constitutional issues being raised and said Thursday's hearing was simply designed to determine the custody status of the children.
"I don't intend to rule on anyone's religious practices. ... I am not passing (judgment) on anyone's religious beliefs," Walther said, adding that the hearing was about the "taking of the children.
"It is about whether or not there's sufficient information to justify the state's intrusion into these folks' lives. The real issue is whether these children can be returned to their parents."
Walther, who said she was inclined to "conditionally" accept the bishop's records as evidence, pointed out that attorneys are more than welcome to file their objections to the court in writing. She said she did not want to discourage any of the issues raised by attorneys, but urged everyone involved to stick to the issue at hand. The other issues would be addressed in the future, she said.
"I will admit that normal doesn't seem to apply to this case," she said.
In the midst of an atmosphere that at one point bordered on jovial, one attorney requested a transfer of venue, saying it would be impossible to fairly handle the case in San Angelo, where Walther presides.
"This is not before a jury. Are you saying I'm going to be negatively impacted by the media? Is that really what you want to say, sir? Be careful," the judge warned.
The attorney immediately withdrew his motion.
The first objections of the day came just minutes after the first case was introduced when Ellen Griffith, an attorney representing the Department of Family and Protective Services, said she wanted genetic samples collected from each child and each parent in her case, a psychiatric exam and counseling for the children, and that the children be placed outside the five-county area that is within the jurisdiction of this court.
Griffith's requests were immediately met with opposition from the guardian ad litem attorney who had objected to the format.
"Your objections are a bit premature," Walther said. "It's not the appropriate time for any lawyer to be saying they've been denied any right."
The judge said, by law, the hearing has to be held within 14 days of the children being taken into custody.
"It is not a perfect solution. ... You will be able to represent your clients individually. ... This is wasting time," Walther said.
The judge went on to say she fully understands that every lawyer will make an objection, but added "let's just see how this works. ... I admit it's not going to be perfect."
During a mid-afternoon lunch break, FLDS member William Jessop was surrounded by a hoard of media. He spoke briefly and when asked if he had a message to the state of Texas, he said, "Wake up. Wake up. Wake up." Asked if the state was wrong to conduct the raid and take the children, he simply replied, "Yes."
Several lawyers representing the children apparently had filed many motions today in an attempt to stop the hearing.
Not long into the proceedings, the court hearing came to an abrupt stop, after attorneys attending at City Hall requested to review documents submitted in the pending case. That proved problematic, however, because the courthouse is located about a block away.
The judge stepped down from the bench while waiting for the paperwork to arrive and to be reviewed.
Dozens of attorneys, media members and polygamist wives in long flowing dresses moved into the downtown courthouse and City Hall auditorium this morning for what is expected to be at least a day-long hearing on the fate of the FLDS children.
A variety of police cars, huge satellite TV trucks from a number of media outlets and a host of other visitors have been crammed into this west Texas town for what is said to be the nation's largest ever child custody case.
Because of the crowds, the hearing before Walther also is being teleconferenced in the expansive auditorium of City Hall, a four-story building constructed in 1928.
Security demands are such that public safety officials from all disciplines — including fire marshals and a narcotics detective who was working front-door security — are being tapped to make sure things go smoothly.
Outside the courthouse on the sidewalk was Mary Batchelor, executive director of Principle Voices. The Utah-based organization has worked closely with Attorney General Mark Shurtleff in setting up the so-called "safety net," which seeks to bridge the gap between polygamists and state bureaucracies. She said today that her group was shocked by the April 3 raid at the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, and that it was reminiscent of similar raids that occurred in Utah in the 1930s , '40s and '50s.
Those raids, she said, also were prompted by allegations of child abuse, claims that were later proven to be unsubstantiated.
"We ask that people not rush to judgment," Batchelor said.
While not officially affiliated with the FLDS religion, Batchelor said she is here to support the families.
"Our hearts go out to the mothers. We'd like to see reunification if possible," she said.
Richard, one of the polygamist fathers who has a 3-month-old child in state custody in the San Angelo Coliseum, tried to enter the courthouse today but finally gave up because the lines were so long.
"We don't trust the judicial system to give us justice and fairness. We trust in God," he said.
The father said he hoped to be able to witness the court hearing in the overflow at City Hall.
The three-day raid on the FLDS Church's YFZ Ranch two weeks ago was based on allegations from phone calls to a family shelter hotline from a 16-year-old girl named Sarah who said she was married to a 49-year-old man. The caller said she was pregnant and was being physically and sexually abused by the man, who she said had six other wives.
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.
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 large limestone temple and log cabin-style houses, is simply a home isolated from a hostile and sinful world.
They deny children were abused.


E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com; nperkins@desnews.com

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