SAN ANGELO, Texas The first court hearings begin today to decide if the parents of hundreds of children taken in the raid on the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch will get their children back or be permanently separated.
Status hearings will be held for each family, which will be given family service plans that outline the allegations of abuse and offer recommendations on what it will take for reunification.
"There will be discussion regarding what the agency and parents are trying to do together in an attempt to have the children safely returned to the parents' care at some point," said Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Five judges will work all day to wade through the hundreds of cases, grouped together by mother. Clerks have cleared the courthouse docket for the next three weeks to focus solely on what has been declared the nation's largest-ever child custody case.
The hearings are not expected to immediately reunite the children with their parents.
"The issue ... will not be visited at these hearings," said Cynthia Martinez with the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid Society, which is representing dozens of FLDS mothers.
Some of the children on today's docket were reportedly fathered by FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.
Numerous family service plans obtained by the Deseret News are essentially identical, from the allegations of abuse to the requirements for the parents to be reunited with their children.
"Interviews with underage girls at the ranch revealed a pattern of underage girls being 'spiritually united' with adult men and having children with these men," the plans say. "The department's investigation has found an apparent practice of training young girls to submit to this behavior and training young boys that when they become adults it is appropriate for them to become perpetrators, which conduct constitutes sexual and mental and emotional abuse."
CPS claims a large number of girls, ages 14-17, have children, are pregnant or both. Several children have or have had suspicious broken bones, and CPS said there are indications of possible sexual abuse of young boys.
Lawyers for FLDS parents have objected to the blanket declarations of abuse on the YFZ Ranch.
"Not every allegation applies to every family. It's going to vary from family to family," said Natalie Malonis, a lawyer for Pamela Jeffs Jessop, 18, who recently won some rights involving her newborn baby.
The family plans call for psychological evaluations, a safe home environment and concessions that CPS workers be allowed to visit those homes unannounced. The plans do not explicitly state that the families renounce their faith or leave the YFZ Ranch, but lawyers for the church and some of the parents claim it is an underlying theme.
"It is not about religion. It's about keeping children safe from sexual abuse," said Meisner. "When we look to the possibility of returning children, we're going to be looking at a safe home environment for children."
CPS will be closely examining the relationships between the children, parents and extended family members, but Meisner emphasized that their goal in the case is reunification.
"The plans of service being filed with the court will be addressing specifically what the parents need to do to have their children safely returned," she said.
No quick results
Today's hearings are not expected to produce any quick results. Instead, judges are expected to review the family plans and assess the needs of the individual families unlike last month's massive hearing that resulted in all of the children being placed in foster care.
"We can figure out what needs to happen in the best interests of the child now," said Jo Reser, a San Antonio attorney appointed by the courts to represent a 3-year-old boy.
Texas has up to a year to work with the families toward reunification. After that, extensions can be granted or the state can move to terminate parental rights.
"Our clients are expecting to have a plan laid out for them that clearly details what they have to do to bring their families together," Martinez said.
The children are not expected to be at the hearings. They are being kept in foster-care facilities all over the state. Reser said the siblings of the child she represents are in different facilities, and their parents spend days on the road, crisscrossing the state to see their children. They worry about any consequences from CPS should they miss a visit.
"This 3-year-old does not understand why when his parents come, they don't take him with them," Reser said, calling it "heartbreaking."
The state still has not conclusively identified who all the parents are for the children. Legal notices have been published to "all unknown parents and any person claiming to be a parent" of the children removed from the YFZ Ranch, ordering them to show up in court. A judge ordered DNA sampling to determine paternity. Results won't be due back for at least another two weeks, Meisner said.
There are at least 24 young women the state believes are minors, but the FLDS claim are adults. CPS recently conceded that Pamela Jeffs Jessop and another woman, 22-year-old Louisa Jessop, are adults. Both women's babies remain in state custody.
The raid on the YFZ Ranch was sparked by phone calls to a San Angelo family crisis shelter from someone claiming to be a 16-year-old girl who was pregnant and in an abusive, polygamous marriage to a 49-year-old man. When CPS workers and law enforcement responded to the ranch, they said they found evidence of other abuse.
That prompted a judge to order the removal of all of the children. Authorities are still investigating the calls and whether they were a hoax.
Some attorneys tell the Deseret News that Texas authorities have been questioning children without attorneys present, and the line of questioning leads them to wonder if it may be part of a criminal probe into the FLDS sect.
At Friday's hearing to determine the custody of Pamela Jeffs Jessop's baby boy, the father did not show up in court. A court-appointed attorney for the child told the judge that he had met with the father's two attorneys one for the civil custody case and the other for a "possible criminal action."
The Texas Department of Public Safety is not commenting on its criminal investigations into the polygamous sect.
Meanwhile, the FLDS people continue to try to elicit sympathies over the raid and the custody battle. On the FLDS Web site truthwillprevail.org, a little girl's poem was posted. It is addressed to Judge Barbara Walther, who ordered the children removed from the ranch.
"Mother dear, I love you so your happy smiling face. It's such a joy to look at you. Mother makes home a heavenly place.
"Father dear I love you so. You are such a joy to me. I can't wait to see you. I miss him too.
"Dear Barbara Walther,
"Why did you take us away from our mothers? And the little innocent children you took away.
"O, Barbra (sic), let us be with our Mothers. Why did you do this. I need my mother."By Marilee, 8 yrs old."