SAN ANGELO, Texas The pleas of Sarah, the mystery polygamist child bride who told authorities she was battered and sexually abused, was the key that unlocked the doors of the sprawling YFZ Ranch in Eldorado.
But according to state child protection officials, she won't have to walk through the courtroom doors Thursday for the state to prove its case of widespread child abuse at the Fundamentalist LDS Church compound.
"I think some people have really focused on that (Sarah) but the reality is that her phone call is the reason we went out there, but it was not the reason for the removals," said Greg Cunningham, spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
"The removals happened based on what we saw out there."
FLDS members have said they believe the teenage girl who telephoned authorities in late March alleging abuse and a desire to leave the enclave in Eldorado is a fake.
The 16-year-old girl, who said she had an 8-month-old infant and was pregnant with her second child, called an area family violence shelter several times saying she needed to leave her current living situation, according to court documents.
Among other things, she said she was "spiritually" married to an older male, was not allowed to leave the compound, was last beaten on Easter Sunday and routinely forced to have sex.
Her calls precipitated a court order to search the ranch on April 3, but Cunningham said it was what investigators found while they were there that gave greater indication of collective abuse that went beyond one victim.
"It was the investigation afterward that led us to believe there was abuse happening in widespread fashion at the compound," he said.
There has been great pressure for state officials to "produce" the child bride, but Cunninghan said she has not been positively identified.
He does say that officials believe "she is among the children in San Angelo with us."
"It is not what we have built our case on," he said. "In our case, what we have found is more than enough evidence that we believe will show that this abuse is happening and these kids are put at risk by returning there."
Unlike criminal court where the burden of proof is "beyond a reasonable doubt," juvenile court proceedings in child welfare cases depend on a less stringent standard that of a "preponderance of the evidence."
Judge Barbara Walther is expected in Thursday's marathon custody hearing to take into consideration a multitude of recommendations that will be made by attorneys representing the state child protective services agency, attorneys representing the parents and attorneys that act as an independent advocate and are appointed by the court.
Typically, judges issue decisions on the continuing custody status of children in child welfare cases the same day they are heard.Because of the voluminous nature of this case 416 children are in state custody from the YFZ Ranch no one knows for certain if the hearing can possibly conclude on Thursday or if decisions are even capable of being rendered for all children in such a short time frame.
E-mail: [email protected]