SAN ANGELO, Texas The eyes of the nation are pinned on this west Texas town as what is said to be the country's largest-ever child custody case begins to unfold today in a cramped courtroom.
No one knows it more keenly than the residents of San Angelo, who foremost worry about the fate of the 416 children taken from a polygamous compound and largely stand by their state's actions.
"As far as the community, if anything it's going to bring us closer together," said Roman Thomas, who was manning the counter at his parents' restaurant, RJ Bar B que, Wednesday. "Our biggest deal right now is bringing the kids to safety. The people of San Angelo will pull together, make sure the kids are safe, and work things out after that."
Thomas paused to take a walk-in order of ribs before finishing his thoughts about the fate of the FLDS children whose lives are on hold.
"I'm a religious man and as far as being a Christian, what religion could possibly be out there that would be involved with child abuse? I never heard of that religion. That might be their beliefs. To be honest, I just think they should blow the whole deal up there."
Marisa Gasca and Tiffany Holmes nodded to each other when asked if they thought Texas had done the right thing in taking the children from their parents.
"To me, I thought that was kind of tragic to have their kids taken away like that. That's a tragic thing to do to a child, to rip them away from their mother like that," said Gasca, who was sitting on the front porch of a home across the street from the historic Fort Concho, which housed most of the children before they were all recently moved across town to the San Angelo Coliseum.
Holmes said she has a teenage daughter who recently had a baby and she worries about who will take care of the children.
"They're going to need a lot of guidance and therapy," she said. "They're going to need a lot of people to show (the children) that they did nothing wrong."
Inside the home of Juan Ibarra, photos of family members mingled with religious pictures on a paneled wall. Ibarra and his friend, Felix Rojax, also live near Fort Concho and said the state's action was needed.
"I do believe that something has to be done," he said. "I feel for the parents, but I feel for the kids more. Whether right or wrong ... we need to take care of the kids first in any way possible."
Rojax, who has been driving a truck for 20 years, said each week he passes through Eldorado and wonders about the YFZ Ranch and who lives there.
"I was in a foster home growing up and I know these people's kids aren't used to living in our society," he said. "I just hope the man upstairs knows. I hope the kids will be able to survive the changes. I think they need to live day by day now that they're out of there. I just hope every kid's OK."
State officials said while much attention has been focused on the desire to "produce" Sarah the mysterious child bride whose allegations of abuse prompted the raid early this month that's not the issue that will unfold today in court.
"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."
Attorney Rod Parker, acting as spokesman for the Fundamentalist LDS Church, said Texas officials know there is no "Sarah."
"How can they think they have her inside with the other children when what they really have is uncorroborated and refuted?" said Parker. "Do they think they have the wife of Dale Barlow? Because that's who they say she is."
The three-day raid on the YFZ Ranch 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 Barlow. The caller said she was pregnant and was being physically and sexually abused by the man who she said had six other wives.
Texas Rangers traveled to Utah last weekend to interview Barlow, 50, who lives in Colorado City, Ariz. He insists he doesn't know the girl and has never been to the Texas ranch. He was not arrested.
"That is because she's not the wife of Dale Barlow, because she doesn't exist," Parker said.
When the custody hearing gets under way today, attorneys with the legal affairs division of the state agency will argue to keep the children in state custody regardless of whether they are able to prove the allegations they say were lodged by Sarah.
"What we are going to have to prove to the judge is that these children have been abused and are in danger of further abuse if they are returned to their homes," Cunningham said. "In doing that, it will not just be CPS trying to prove this, it will be a lot of parties in the courthouse."
The relatively small Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo cannot handle the anticipated crowd, so in addition to the setting where the action will unfold, authorities have set up a teleconferencing site at City Hall to accommodate interested parties, mainly the media. The hearing is expected to last all day and perhaps spill into Friday.
Although sexual abuse is front and center at the case that led to the raid, Cunningham would not comment specifically on whether any medical exams have been performed to determine evidence of sexual activity among the young FLDS women and girls.
"Generally, that evidence is something we would secure as part of our investigation," he said.
Procedurally in child sex abuse cases that result in the removal of a child from a home, an exam is performed to determine if the allegations can be substantiated. If so, that evidence at the very least can lead to a judicial order barring contact between the accused and the child victim while the investigation continues or it can culminate in criminal charges that result in prison time.
Because of the seizure of such a massive number of children and the absence of the accuser the early April raid has led to criticism of what some have called Nazi-like tactics perpetuated by Texas authorities bent on religious persecution.
Child protection officials have rejected that characterization, with Cunningham on Wednesday pointing out that every step along the way has had the stamp of judicial approval.
"This was not a decision (the Department of Public Safety) made in a vacuum. The removal itself was approved by the judge."
Patrick Crimmins, another spokesman for the department, said the agency is alternately criticized for acting too slowly especially if a child is harmed or should die or acting with too much haste if the arm of government is perceived as overreaching.
"We're generally criticized all the time," Crimmins said.
While Sarah's calls prompted the raids on the ranch, 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. Cunningham said "Sarah" still has not been positively identified but 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 today's marathon custody hearing to take into consideration a multitude of recommendations that will be put forward by attorneys representing the state child protective services agency, attorneys representing the parents and attorneys that act as an independent advocates 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 today or if decisions are even capable of being rendered for all children in such a short time frame.Walther is the same judge who ordered the search warrants to be executed at the ranch and the same judge who ordered that all children be removed from the property and taken into state custody.