SAN ANGELO, Texas Four FLDS women whom Texas officials believed were minors have now been declared adults.
While holding hearings to determine plans that could eventually reunite many of the more than 450 children with their parents, judges here have also been wading into the cases of 26 young women called "disputed minors." The state believes they are underage, but Fundamentalist LDS Church members have insisted they are adults.
Judge Jay Weatherby has been overseeing a full docket involving the young women. On Tuesday morning, Natalia Jessop, 18, was declared an adult.
"Ms. Jessop, is that your belief as well? That you are an adult?" the judge asked her.
"Yes," she replied over the phone from a shelter where she has been staying.
The judge postponed a decision on Mildred "Millie" Jessop until Thursday, when a hearing will be held for her children.
After reviewing testimony, Weatherby declared three other "disputed minors" adults Tuesday afternoon: Evelyn Allred, Rebecca Allred and Monica Jessop.
"Do I have the right to act like an adult?" Evelyn Allred asked the judge by telephone during her hearing.
Weatherby assured her that new accommodations would be made for her "adult status," including increased access to a telephone. She will remain in a foster facility because she has an infant son and he remains in state custody.
Texas Child Protective Services has allowed mothers of children 12 months and younger to remain with them, largely because the mothers have wanted to breastfeed their children.
In another courtroom, Dan and Louisa Jessop's lawyers tried to get Judge Barbara Walther to recuse herself from the massive child custody case. It was Walther who gave the order placing all of the children in state custody. In this case, she was asked to step away from the Jessop's case because of an order she issued putting Louisa Jessop's baby in state custody. The motion was denied.
"That was a very uphill battle, but it did expose some issues with the way the hearings have been handled," said Rod Parker, a Salt Lake attorney acting as a spokesman for the FLDS people.
Jessop, 22, was recently declared an adult just after she gave birth to a baby. She did not appear in court on Tuesday for a hearing involving her children.
"She's with her baby in San Antonio," her husband said.
Five judges are simultaneously hearing case after case in a schedule that's set to last three weeks. 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.
During today's hearings, there was more confusion over names, birthdates and identities of children.
Attorney Deborah Keenun appeared in court for a hearing involving a baby alongside the parents and attorneys for three other children with the same name. It happened again in another courtroom.
"I had parents who drove in from San Antonio," she said.
There was more confusion here as well about a case involving people that many believe do not even exist.
Texas Child Protective Services attorneys have now dismissed the custody action involving a child alleged to belong to Sarah Jessop and Dale Evans Barlow.
"To our knowledge, we don't have that baby in custody," said Texas CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner.
"Sarah" is the name of the girl who called in to a family crisis shelter here, claiming she was 16, pregnant and in an abusive, polygamous marriage to a man named Dale Evans Barlow. That call prompted the raid on the YFZ Ranch and the removal of all of the Fundamentalist LDS children.
Authorities continue to investigate if the call was a hoax; a Colorado woman has been named as a "person of interest" in the investigation and was arrested on similar charges. A warrant for Barlow, who lives in Arizona, has been dropped.
A custody action involving "Sarah" herself has yet to hit court, but it will likely result in a dismissal.
"To our knowledge, we can't identify that we have her," Meisner said Tuesday.
Interestingly enough, ex-FLDS members have appeared in court to offer custody solutions. Arthur L. Barlow appeared in court alongside his estranged wife, Esther, to plead for the children to be returned.
Barlow said he was excommunicated from the FLDS Church four years ago, but his wives remained. He learned that his children were in Texas custody when a brother-in-law called him, asking if he could help.
He hasn't seen Esther, or the five children he had with her, since then. He recently visited his 6-year-old daughter, whom he said didn't recognize him at first.
"I chose to stay away and let them have a life," he said Tuesday.
Barlow said he adamantly disagreed with the allegations of abuse on the YFZ Ranch, even though he has never been there himself.
"How does this involve me?" he asked CPS caseworker Ashley Kennedy.
"Your children were on the ranch. We found reason to believe there was a pervasive pattern of sex abuse. Your children were at risk," she replied.
"You have no proof I'm guilty of those. If I'm not guilty, why can't I have my children?"
Barlow said he wants his children to be returned to their mother, but offered to take them himself as a "plan B." CPS workers conceded that Esther Barlow was on the "fast track" for reunification. She had already completed a psychological evaluation and had signed a lease on a three-bedroom home.
Arthur Barlow was not the only father who is here to offer support for reunification. Frank Johnson traveled from his home in Utah to offer support. He said that he left the FLDS faith.
"Texas is mixed up," he said of the custody situation.
Texas child welfare authorities maintain that children on the ranch were abused or at risk of abuse. During one hearing for a 1-year-old boy, it was revealed that the child's mother is 17, and theoretically, it makes her 15 when her son was conceived.
The child's father did not show up in court. The hearing was continued because the mother is eight months pregnant now.
"We've always known that there are one or two or three examples of that out there," Parker told the Deseret News. "What I've always been denying is there are 26 or 31 examples, which is what CPS has claimed."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.