SAN ANGELO, Texas A judge wants attorneys representing FLDS mothers and children to ask local LDS congregations if they would be willing to "provide a buffer" for FLDS members who wish to pray in groups at a temporary shelter.
Judge Barbara Walther made the decision late Monday afternoon at a hearing to address three issues brought by attorneys representing mothers of children who remain in a state shelter. A total of 416 children were removed from the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch earlier this month as part of a child-abuse investigation.
The group of mothers filed court papers earlier Monday demanding their rights to pray in private without having a Texas Department of Family and Protective Services worker overseeing them. They also filed a motion asking the judge to allow them to stay with their nursing children and asked for access to telephones to communicate with their attorneys.
Addressing the concerns about prayer, Walther said she was aware of a community of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in San Angelo. While acknowledging LDS Church members are not from the same group, she asked attorneys to see if the LDS faith would be willing to monitor the prayer services of the women and children who remain in the shelter.
"How would I stop someone from practicing their faith?" the judge asked.
She acknowledged concerns from Texas child welfare authorities about improper communications between mothers and children that could occur in such private prayer times and have an affect on the pending investigations.
"If they cross the line or coach the child or make any kind of comment on litigation, all bets are off," Walther said.
The president of the LDS Abilene Texas Stake, which oversees San Angelo, was surprised by the judge's request.
"They think we're the same ones because we use the Book of Mormon," said Charles L. Webb. "I'm dumbfounded they would suggest that."
Webb plans to contact church headquarters in Salt Lake City for guidance.
The judge did say if that fails, she would look at other options.
Regarding breast-feeding, the judge said attorneys ad litem should be working with Texas child protective services workers in mediation to solve that problem, declining to consider the motion to order that nursing mothers remain in the shelter with their children.
Last week, mothers of children over 4 years old were separated from their children and sent back to their homes. Texas child welfare officials have said the mothers that remain with their young children in the temporary shelters will eventually be separated as foster families and foster homes are located.
On the issue of the FLDS women and children being allowed contact with attorneys, the judge ordered eight phone lines to be set up six for the children and two for the mothers with 24-hour access to their attorneys.
Lawyers for Department of Family and Protective Services said they had already set up the phone lines earlier Monday.
At the end of the hearing, an attorney asked the judge to consider her motion to stop the separation of mothers from their children. The judge said she hadn't seen the motion, noting that she had a large stack of motions to go over.
When the attorney pressed her to consider it immediately, Walther stood up and announced, "Ladies and gentleman, this hearing is concluded," and abruptly left the bench.
In the motion, attorney Andrea Sloan asked the judge to allow the women and children 30 minutes in the morning and again at night to pray in private. "Without exception, respondent mothers have reported that the department will not let them pray without being monitored by the department," Sloan wrote.
Attorneys were also pushing to keep a group of nursing mothers from being separated from their children, pending the results of DNA testing currently under way in San Angelo. "Some of respondent mothers are currently parenting children under the age of 2 years of age and are still breast-feeding," the motion stated.
The women's attorneys also filed motions arguing that when cell phones were taken from the women, they lost the ability to communicate effectively with their clients. The cell phones were taken the day after members of the FLDS Church inside the Fort Concho shelter spoke out to the Deseret News, complaining of cramped conditions.
The women provided the Deseret News with photographs taken by a cell phone to show the conditions. Shortly afterward, they were all moved to the San Angelo Coliseum, where some of the children have remained.
The motions were filed in 51st District Court today by attorneys for Charlotte Johnson, Suzanne Johnson, Sarah Johnson, Angela Harker and other mothers of children taken from the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado.
Authorities began collecting DNA samples Monday morning from children taken from the ranch, the Texas Attorney General's Office said.
The children were to be given a cheek swab, then photographed and fingerprinted. They have each been assigned a number to identify them and the sample they gave.
"We began the process this morning and anticipate working on this throughout the week," said Janece Rolfe, a spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general. "It will be about 30 days to receive results, maybe a little longer."
Judge Barbara Walther signed court papers this morning ordering the DNA samples.
"The Court finds that an unknown number of males of reproductive age reside, or have resided, at the ranch during the probable time of conception of one or more of the children the subject of this suit," her order says. "The court further finds that an unknown number of females of child bearing age reside, or have resided at the ranch and could be the mother of one or more children the subject of this suit."
The order lists the hundreds of names of parents and children that are known at the YFZ Ranch, including FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, who it lists as being in "prison."
The parents on the YFZ Ranch are expected to show up at the Schleicher County Memorial Building in Eldorado on Tuesday to give a DNA sample. At the makeshift shelter at the San Angelo Coliseum and the Cal Farley Boy's Ranch, where the FLDS children have been staying since they were taken into state custody, children were giving samples.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said it is still having trouble identifying individual children and who their parents are.
"We're still not getting names," said child protective services spokesman Greg Cunningham. "We don't know who are siblings, mothers, fathers."
The raid on the YFZ Ranch was prompted by a phone call to a San Angelo family crisis center from a 16-year-old girl who claimed she was abused, pregnant and married to a 50-year-old man. Authorities have not been able to identify her, but said that when they went onto the ranch to investigate the complaint they found signs of other children being abused.
That led to the judge's order removing all 416 children from the ranch. Last week, Walther ordered that all children will remain in state custody.
Once the DNA samples are gathered, Cunningham said they will move forward with placing the children in foster care.
"We've got some of the placements lined up, but we're still waiting for some guidance from the court," he said.
Child protective services said the children will be kept in groups, including teenage mothers with their children and siblings grouped together. The children would likely not be going to a typical foster home, Cunningham said.
"It's a home-type setting. A majority of them would go to a residential facility," he said. "There are several different options out there."
Authorities refused to discuss how the children would be transitioned from the San Angelo Coliseum to foster care because of security reasons.Outside the coliseum today, the police presence has been heavy. Texas state troopers, Tom Green County sheriff's deputies, San Angelo police and unmarked patrol cars have all been seen circling the large parking lot surrounding the building.
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