SAN ANGELO, Texas Hearings to discuss custody of FLDS children resumed this afternoon with attorneys for parents and children becoming increasingly agitated about the lack of personalization and specifics in the family service plans.
Nancy Delong, who represents Carlene Jessop, a mother of four children in state custody, attacked the plan in court, saying it is not specific to her client.
"The plan that has been filed is not specific to Ms. Jessop," she said.
"It is specific to Ms. Jessop," Joni Manske, a Texas Child Protective Services worker replied.
"It's specific to Ms. Jessop, just like it is for 400 other children?"
Delong also criticized the many requirements necessary for her client to be reunited with her children, which include open-ended suggestions such as parenting, psychological and vocational classes. Those requirements are in addition to Jessop's weekly visits with her children, who are scattered in facilities a day's travel apart.
"What are you going to do to help her?" Delong asked the CPS worker.
"I don't know the answer to that," Manske replied.
Jessop's husband, William Sunderland Jessop, sat near her in court. His attorney accused CPS of preparing a plan involving him and his children without ever talking to him.
Manske replied that the plans could be amended.
Another attorney in a separate courtroom pleaded with Judge Barbara Walther to instruct CPS workers to be more responsive.
"I'd like a little respect here," said Billy Britt Jarvis. He said he's made repeated phone calls to the agency on behalf of his client, a little boy, and has had very little response.
Criticism over the plans also focused on the lack of attorneys having a chance to review them. In some cases, even the parents have not seen the plans.
"I'd like some respect, too, like that other attorney said. This plan wasn't even presented to my client until Saturday," said Thomas H. Morris III. He represents Samuel Jessop, who with his wife Cynthia Joy, has several children in state custody throughout the state of Texas.
• A young son of FLDS Church leader Warren Jeffs was among the first children discussed in a custody hearing this morning in what will be weeks of court proceedings to determine the fate of hundreds of children taken from the YFZ Ranch.
Walther approved a family service plan for reuniting 6-year-old Samuel with his mother Sharon Barlow, 35, who appeared in the courtroom. The boy is in state custody in Amarillo.
The goal is reunification by April 13, 2009.
Jeffs, currently incarcerated in an Arizona jail, was mailed a notice of Monday's hearing. Samuel is Barlow's only child.
Barlow's attorney, Donna Guion, listed a number of objections to the service plan.
"It is so vague and so broad my client has no idea of what she needs to know" to comply, she said.
As part of the plan, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services wants to assess not only the educational ability of the boy but that of his mother as well. It wants Barlow to submit to a variety of tests to determine her vocational interests.
The department also wants her to undergo psychological testing which will inevitably decide what types of parenting classes she may need to take.
Barlow is willing to do whatever the state requires if it means getting her son back, Guion said. Barlow has been able to see Samuel once a week but would like additional visitation, she said.
The mother also wants to be more involved in her son's education and recently dropped off a packet of school materials for him.
The service plan also addresses the need for Samuel to undergo physical therapy because he has a prosthetic leg. Walther asked how the boy lost his leg. It was indicated in court that it resulted from a birth defect.
Clerks at the Tom Green County Courthouse have cleared the docket for the next three weeks as five judges wade through hundreds of status hearings for each child taken from the church's YFZ Ranch. The cases are grouped together by mother.
• Lawyers for one mother said in court that copies of the Book of Mormon have been taken from the boys being housed at the Cal Farley's Boys Ranch in Amarillo. That irritated the judge.
"I'd like to know why that was removed," said Judge Marilyn Aboussie. "I'd like to hear if there's a good reason. I can't think of one myself. There needs to be an excellent reason."
The court-appointed special advocate for the children did request that any sermons or writings of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs be removed from the children because he is a convicted felon in a child sex-abuse case. But the advocate said she did not object to the Book of Mormon.
The owner of the ranch has not returned phone calls from the Deseret News.
• A number of other children fathered by Jeffs also had their cases heard Monday. One of the children's mothers, Shannon Johnson, refused to sign a family service plan on the advice of her attorney but said she was willing to work with Child Protective Services.
CPS workers testified they would be open to the idea of out-of-state placements for some of the children. Johnson's mother, who is not an FLDS member, appeared in court and said she would be willing to take her 3-year-old granddaughter.
"Is the ultimate goal of this plan the return of the children to their parents?" asked CPS lawyer Eric Tai.
"Yes," said Esther Cox, a case worker.
• Another mother, Brenda Jessop, signed a service plan Monday agreeing to work with child welfare workers.
Throughout the hearings, the judges reminded attorneys they were not there to relitigate the initial findings that removed the 464 children and placed them into state custody. That didn't stop attorneys from trying, though.
The initial hearings got off to a rough start this morning with attorneys being required to be in multiple courtrooms at once. Long security lines also made it difficult for FLDS members and their lawyers to make it to court on time.
• An attorney for another FLDS family in court today criticized the family service plan, saying it would be nearly impossible for the parents to comply with it.
Jerri Lynn Ward, representing James and Sarah Jessop a couple who have a number of children in state custody said their children are scattered in foster care facilities in Texas from Amarillo to Liverpool and simply arranging visitation has proven nightmarish.
"It's creating a hardship to even effectuate the parenting plan you have put into place," Ward said.
On the stand, a CPS worker acknowledged the difficulty in keeping siblings together despite earlier claims by the agency that it would try not to split up brothers and sisters.
The unidentified worker said the agency had inadvertently separated a set of twins "that we didn't realize."
The worker went on to say, "It is difficult keeping track of all the sibling groups."
Ward also questioned the worker on how the agency can help facilitate communication among siblings, especially given their young ages. The worker didn't have any answers.
Ward also raised objections over the wording in one section of the plan dealing with home schooling. She referred to a 2005 memo signed by Texas Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Carey Cockerell that stressed home schooling alone is not an element of concern that would prompt a CPS investigation.
But in the template for each child's service plan, CPS noted that an assessment should be done to determine the children's educational needs because of their home schooling.
Timothy Mark Lambert, president of the Texas Home School Association, testified CPS has had a pattern of investigating families who home school their children. It was his concern three years ago that resulted in Cockerell's assurance that home schooling alone should not be an issue. Lambert said it's impossible to take a cookie cutter approach to measuring the academic performance of home-schooled children because they don't use the same curriculum that public schools do.
Some parents choose home schooling because it allows them to combine basic education with religious tenets, Lambert said, adding that in contrast, public education adopts a secular world view.
If CPS is to rely strictly on the recommendations of a "educational professional," Lambert said that would give FLDS parents few options to direct their children's education. "It seems to leave no leeway for parents except to acquiesce to the recommendations of the educational professionals," he said.
While not nearly as frenzied as last month's two-day adversarial hearing, today's hearings attracted multiple media outlets. Large satellite trucks used by TV stations lined the streets in front of the Tom Green County Courthouse. A local vendor, obviously pandering to the out-of-towners, set up food stands on the east lawn of the building.
The hearings have even captured the attention of European reporters, including one man in town from the London Times. Several locals popped their heads into the main entrance of the courthouse Monday, just to get a look at what all the fuss is about.