SAN ANGELO, Texas — The massive child custody case involving hundreds of children taken from the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch lurches forward with another full day of status hearings today addressing what it will take to reunite parents with their children.

Hearings held simultaneously in five courtrooms in the past two days have already produced a number of revelations, confusion and bitterness.

During a hearing Tuesday afternoon, Dan Jessop asked one judge for some explanations: "What is CPS's purpose and reasons for doing this and what good this does for me and my family?"

FLDS members continue to deny the allegations of abuse on the YFZ Ranch — that girls were groomed to become child brides and boys would grow up to be predators. In fact, Child Protective Services caseworkers were hard-pressed to articulate abuse for any of the families that sat before them in court.

"Inch by inch, and day by day, the truth is starting to come out about what's really happening here," said Rod Parker, a Salt Lake attorney acting as a spokesman for the FLDS Church. "What we're finding is the parents haven't done anything wrong, and the state can't articulate as to any parent what they did."

Texas child welfare authorities maintain that children on the ranch were abused or at risk of abuse. During one hearing on Tuesday for a 1-year-old boy, it was revealed that the child's mother is 17. Theoretically, that means she was 15 when her son was conceived.

The baby'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."

CPS declined to say if there were more cases like that pending. "We continue to present evidence each day to the courts for consideration," said spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner.

Ex-FLDS

Former members who have been cast out of the polygamous sect are now stepping forward to offer custody solutions.

Arthur L. Barlow drove thousands of miles from his home in southern Utah to appear in court alongside his 35-year-old estranged wife, Esther.

Barlow, 59, 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 the excommunication. He recently visited his 6-year-old daughter, who he said didn't recognize him at first.

"I chose to stay away and let them have a life," he said Tuesday.

Barlow has 12 other children — ranging in age from 17 to 37 — with another woman. 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," he said. "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." He has rented a home in Abilene and said he has a reputation as an excellent contractor laying tile.

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 also traveled from his home in Utah to offer support.

"Texas is mixed up," he said of the custody situation.

Religion, rights

Warren Jeffs may be incarcerated in an Arizona jail, but his influence among his followers is front and center in Texas.

The issue of the FLDS leader's continuing influence played out in court before Judge Barbara Walther in a case involving Jeffs' brother, Seth Steed Jeffs. The brother and his wife, Kathryn, have seven children in state custody scattered across Texas in four different facilities.

The attorney representing Seth Jeffs objected to the state's prohibition forbidding children and family members to even mention Warren Jeffs' name while in the foster care facilities.

"To prohibit the mentioning of a name doesn't protect the children," argued Carl Kolb.

CPS 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 hearings. Seth and Kathryn Jeffs' attorneys argued that state-produced family service plans call for 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," Kathryn Jeffs' lawyer Nancy DeLong said.

Kolb asked that language be added to the plan, guaranteeing his client's constitutional right to worship freely. The judge 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.

Seth Jeffs returned to court later in the day for more hearings involving the mothers of other children he has with them, 18 in total.

In a case of a child where both parents were previously identified as unknown, a woman stepped forward to claim parentage. Monica Sue Jessop, 34, identified herself to the judge as the mother of Monica Jeffs, 3, and named the father as Warren Jeffs.

She went on to list four additional children as belonging to the FLDS leader.

Courtroom confusion

The court hearings resumed with 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.

In other courtrooms, a couple of attorneys teleconferenced in and were confused as well. One lawyer said he was looking for a 7-year-old boy he was supposed to represent. After being bounced from courtroom to courtroom, he finally found the right child.

"Beautiful," he said.

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 family service plan.

Disputed minors

Four young women believed to be minors have now been legally declared adults.

"Do I have the right to act like an adult?" Evelyn Allred, 18, asked Judge Jay Weatherby 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.

The judge also declared Rebecca Allred, Monica Jessop and Natalia Jessop to be adults. A decision on Mildred "Millie" Jessop was postponed until Thursday, when a hearing will be held for her children. On Monday, courtroom testimony indicated that the state acknowledged two more young women were adults. Two others were declared adults shortly after they gave birth to children who are still in state protective custody.

The reclassification calls into question the number of underage mothers that Texas authorities have claimed they have.

Recusal

Dan and Louisa Jessop's lawyers tried to get Walther to recuse herself from the massive child custody case. Walther was the judge who gave the order placing all of the children in state custody. In this case, she was asked to step away from the Jessop 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 Parker.

During another hearing for the Jessop's other children, CPS caseworkers acknowledged that the children — 3-year-old Amber and 2-year-old Rulon — are not doing well in foster care. The children have become withdrawn and have not been eating or sleeping well.

Judge Tom Gossett ordered CPS to come up with a plan to bring the siblings together, and acknowledged that the family service plans were overly broad.

"I know a wide loop was thrown around everyone in this order," he said Tuesday. "Around all the children."

'Sarah'

CPS attorneys have 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 Meisner.

Sarah is the name of the 16-year-old girl who called in to a family crisis shelter here, claiming she was 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 FLDS 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 Colorado City, Ariz., 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.


E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com; amyjoi@desnews.com