SAN ANGELO, Texas Warren Jeffs may be incarcerated in an Arizona jail, but his influence among his followers is front and center in Texas courtrooms thousands of miles away.
The issue of the Fundamentalist LDS Church prophet's continuing influence played out in court today before Judge Barbara Walther in a case involving Jeffs' own brother, Seth Steed Jeffs. The brother and his wife, Kathryn, have seven children in state custody scattered across Texas in four different facilities.
In today's hearing, the attorney representing Seth Jeffs objected to the state's prohibition that forbids children and family members to even mention Warren Jeffs' name while in the foster facilities.
"To prohibit the mentioning of a name doesn't protect the children," argued Carl Kolb.
Child Protective Services attorney Ellen Griffiths disagreed, saying that when Warren Jeffs is exalted as the leader of the faith, it becomes problematic.
"When he's held up as an example of what a man should be, then these children are at risk. He's been convicted on one charge of a sex offense with a minor and is facing other charges," she said.
Religion and the rights of FLDS faithful to worship freely dominated the hearing one of many hearings scheduled over the next three weeks designed to determine whether the 464 children taken from the YFZ Ranch will eventually be reunited with their parents or not.
The attorneys for Seth and Kathryn Jeffs repeatedly stressed Tuesday that the vague family service plan recommendations could run counter to FLDS beliefs. As an example, Nancy Delong who is representing Kathryn Jeffs said the service plans call for the parents to follow "any and all" recommendations made by counselors as a result of required parenting classes and/or psychological examinations.
"My client could be asked to denounce Jesus Christ and worship Thor," Delong said.
Delong applied a similar hypothetical scenario to possible medical outcomes as a result of the required examinations. Because her client's children are "yon and hither" across Texas, she said it's very possible her client could be depressed. She added her client wasn't depressed, but if that should hypothetically happen, perhaps the state would order her to take anti-depressants.
She said her client could hypothetically be construed as bipolar because she's laughing one minute "and crying the next ... but the only reason she's crying is because all of a sudden she remember's it's Matt's birthday." Matthew Jeffs is one of the couple's children in state custody.
"I don't want my client to be forced to take psychotropic medications," she said.
It was at that point that Walther interjected and wanted it made clear on the record that no parents had been forced, at this point, to take any medications.
Both Delong and Kolb objected to the "carte blanche" parameters of expectations in the service plans, with Kolb specifically asking that language be added guaranteeing his client's constitutional right to worship freely. He asked that the language be added in particular to a section dealing with the requirements that the parents receive counseling as it relates to physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children. This came even after a CPS worker testified that she had no direct evidence that either of the parents had ever physically or sexually abused their children.
CPS countered that the plans remain deliberately vague because the assessment of the parents continues, so they can't realistically outline more specific expectations. But because those expectations haven't been outlined, attorneys for the parents don't want them to agree to such non-specific service plans.
Walther solved at least part of the problem. "I'm not sure there is a conflict if everyone agrees here that physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children are inappropriate regardless of your religious tenets," she said.
At the end of this hearing, the service plan and all its ambiguities was entered into the court record and CPS workers promised that in the coming weeks they would do their best to reunite as many of these seven children as possible, acknowledging that the siblings would be better off together.
With so many players multiple parents, more than 450 children, 350 attorneys, five judges and five courtrooms it all added up to confusion as the court hearings for children in the polygamist sect resumed today.
The problems for Seth and Kathryn Jeffs started out early, after the father went to the wrong courtroom with his attorney and had to be retrieved for the start of the hearing.
A couple of attorneys were teleconferenced in and were confused as well. One attorney said he was looking for a 7-year-old boy he was supposed to represent. When he was told the boy was in the right courtroom, the attorney's response was, "Beautiful."
When the hearing finally got under way before the judge, it was delayed once again because apparently attorneys, parents and the state had multiple versions of what was supposed to be the same service plan.
The hearings in the largest custody case in U.S. history are the first step for FLDS parents to be reunited with their children seized in the raid on the YFZ Ranch or see their parental rights taken away.
Five judges in five courtrooms are simultaneously hearing case after case in a schedule that's set to last a grueling three weeks because of a statutory deadline. Parents are being pushed to sign family service plans that include allegations about child abuse within the polygamous sect and what mothers and fathers must do to ensure their children are safe and can be reunited with them.
The FLDS deny the abuse and argue that Texas authorities have stacked the deck against them.
"It's an outrageous day," FLDS member Willie Jessop said as he left the courthouse Monday. "There has been many cases made today, and what do they have in common? That no parent knows what they've done wrong, all of them have been accused of being bad and there's no cure."
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services maintains that its ultimate goal is reunification of the 450-plus children with their parents by April 13, 2009.
Monday and Tuesday's hearings are the first step toward that goal and the judicial approval of family service plans puts guidelines in place.
"We are very hopeful reunification can happen," said Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for Texas Child Protective Services.
Part of the thrust, she added, is to educate the women about Texas law and the definitions of abuse and neglect.
"This knowledge will be power for them," she told the Deseret News.
The first day of hearings got off to a rough start Monday with many attorneys being needed in several courtrooms at once and parents running late because of long lines at security. At times, judges struggled to keep the attorneys on task.
Despite warnings from judges to focus on the custody fights and not the previous rulings that led to the seizures, some lawyers pushed those issues.
"I believe there's a fundamental problem with due process rights," said Nancy DeLong, a lawyer for Carlene Jessop, a mother of four children in state custody. "My understanding of the law in the U.S. and Texas is we have a right to due process."
Jessop was only served with papers telling her to show up to court as she sat down for her own hearing.
"She's here today," Judge Jay Weatherby said.
"She's here because she wants her children back," DeLong replied.
On the dockets, each child had legal representation as well as the mothers noted by name. Noticeably absent were the fathers. The dockets either did not list the father or, if it did, some had no attorneys.
Lawyers for the FLDS parents attacked the family service plans for their lack of specifics, both in the allegations of abuse and the proposed resolutions arguing that the plans set the parents up to fail.
"The plan that has been filed is not specific to Ms. Jessop," DeLong said while questioning a CPS worker on the witness stand.
"It is specific to Ms. Jessop," Joni Manske replied.
"It's specific to Ms. Jessop just like it is for 400 other children?"
DeLong criticized the requirements for reunification that include parenting, psychological and vocational classes with no deadlines. Those requirements are in addition to Jessop's weekly visits with her children, who are scattered in facilities across Texas that require a day's travel either way.
"What are you going to do to help her?" DeLong asked.
"I don't know the answer to that," Manske replied.
Jessop's husband, William Sunderland Jessop, sat nearby. His attorney accused CPS of preparing a plan involving him and his 11 children without ever talking to him. Manske said the plans can be amended.
In another courtroom, an attorney pleaded with Judge Walther to tell CPS 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.
According to the family plans, not visiting their children could also hurt the parents' chances for reunification. For some, that task may be daunting because of the placements around the state.
For example, 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.
On the witness 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 worker admitted the agency had inadvertently separated a set of twins "that we didn't realize."
Their attorney, Jeri Lyn Ward, also raised objections in court over the wording in their plan dealing with home schooling. CPS has noted an assessment should be done for each child to determine the children's educational needs because of their home schooling.
That contradicts 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, Ward argued.
The criticisms of the family service plans were repeated in several courtrooms on Monday. Still, most parents did sign them. A few refused. Attorneys for the parents have filed objections with the courts, which will have be negotiated with CPS as the cases move forward.
At least one mother refused to sign the family service plan because of an ongoing criminal probe. Barbara Steed Jessop was questioned at length by Judge Barbara Walther about the identity of her child, given numerous names listed for him in the file.
Jessop's lawyer, Gonzalo Rios, indicated that he had advised his client to not sign the service plan involving her son, Sampson Jessop, 17.
"There's a criminal investigation and she is not in any way, shape or form agreeing with the allegations contained in the plan," he said.
The boy's father was identified on the court docket as Merrill Jessop, who is in charge of the YFZ Ranch. A CPS worker said in court they have been unable to locate Jessop to give notice of Monday's hearing.
There were some small victories for FLDS mothers, which will help them be reunited with their children. The approval of a family plan would bring 6-year-old Samuel Barlow, who is in custody inn Amarillo, with his mother, Sharon.
There was also a promise to attorney Clint Symes to put two boys together with one of their brothers. The siblings are part of a family of six children of Richard Samuel Jessop and Cynthia Joy Jessop, which also includes an infant who is still with Cynthia Jessop.
After their hearing, the Jessops huddled in conversation with a CPS worker and shared smiles and laughs. Cynthia brought a picture showing a five-bedroom house the couple say they hope to rent to help with reunification efforts.
"It's more than adequate. It's really nice," she told the CPS worker.
Earlier, courtroom testimony indicated that Richard Jessop has had training as a pilot and experience in the construction trade. The ability for the FLDS families to support themselves while under the purview of the state welfare agency has become a critical component of the family service plans.
Although the family service plans are ambiguous, FLDS parents are hopeful for reunification. Thomas H. Morris III, a lawyer representing Richard Jessop, compared the hearings playing out in Texas as a water sprinkler spraying in fits as it starts up, then spinning wildly around at anyone who gets in the way.
"I got dropped into this case with a lot of serious concerns and you don't know what's going on. It's like, 'Where's north?' Today, we figured out where north is," he told the Deseret News. "As soon as CPS figures out where north is, and they're capable of that, our paths will converge."
Morris said his representation of an FLDS father was at first personally conflicting.
"If there's any wrong done, it needs to be punished. There may be abusers out there. I have a wife, a daughter, a granddaughter and I don't stand for the abuse of women and children. If there are perpetrators, there is justice for them and I mean Texas justice," he said.
But, Morris gestured toward his client and said he didn't believe the father of six was one of them.
"This man here, I'd have him for a neighbor," he said.
Some families are preparing to leave the YFZ Ranch, said Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney acting as a spokesman for the FLDS people.
"There are parents who are looking at that," he said.
Others are seeking out family members to possibly care for their children in Texas, Utah, or Arizona. The grandmother of 3-year-old Maria Johnson Jeffs appeared in court on Monday, offering to take custody of the child. She is no longer in the FLDS Church and has since relocated to Texas.
Texas CPS said out-of-state placement is not under consideration at this time, with the goal being reunification with the parents. It would only be considered if that is not a possibility.
The family service plans do not specifically say that the FLDS people must leave the community, or renounce their faith.
"Are you asking them to renounce the FLDS?" asked Steve Pickell, a court-appointed attorney representing 11-year-old Isaac Jessop Jeffs, during a hearing for Brenda Jessop.
"That's not what we're asking," CPS caseworker Missy McCarty replied.
Absent leader, father
Cases involving some of the children fathered by FLDS leader Warren Jeffs were among the first heard by judges. The absence of the father caused some hesitation when it came to identifying him, although Judge Marilyn Aboussie insisted on it during a hearing for Jeffs' 3-year-old daughter, Maria, and her mother, Shannon Johnson.
"Who is the father in this matter?" Aboussie asked at the start of their hearing.
"May I ask why the court is inquiring?" Johnson's lawyer, Jacques De La Mota, piped up.
"If he is the father, we would need to know."
After pausing, De La Mota replied: "The father would be Warren Jeffs."
"And he is a guest of the state of Utah," Aboussie said, referring to Jeffs being in prison.
"He doesn't have an attorney present, but he is seeking counsel at this time," De La Mota said. CPS workers said they have mailed him family service plans to review.
The FLDS leader was convicted in Utah of rape as an accomplice for performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin. He is also facing similar charges in Arizona, and a federal grand jury has indicted him on charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution stemming from his time on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.
A court-ordered DNA sample has not been collected from Jeffs, even though samples are on file at both the Utah State Prison and the Mohave County Jail.
In another hearing for two of Jeffs' boys and a woman named Brenda Jessop, Aboussie appeared irritated when it was revealed in court that copies of the Book of Mormon belonging to boys being sheltered at Cal Farley's Boys Ranch in Amarillo were confiscated.
"I'd like to know why that was removed. I'd like to hear if there's a good reason," Aboussie said. "I can't think of one myself. There needs to be an excellent reason."
A CPS caseworker said that there were photographs of Warren Jeffs inside the books, noting that he is a convicted sex offender.
"The same father of these children?" Aboussie asked. "If this is their religious text, they're probably entitled to have it."
FLDS member Willie Jessop blasted the removal of the scriptures as "sick and pathetic."
"If they can openly admit they can take away the Book of Mormon from us today, it'll be the Bible tomorrow," he fumed outside the courthouse. "It's outrageous!"
Cal Farley's Boys Ranch officials did not return repeated phone calls for comment on Monday. Officials with the Tom Green County Children's Advocacy Center also raised concerns about Jeffs' sermons."CASA is concerned about children listening to or reading anything by Warren Jeffs," case manager Paulette Schell said. "He is a convicted felon and we'd like those communications to stop."