SAN ANGELO, Texas Perhaps bowing to the pressure at the center of the FLDS custody case, a spokesman for the church today released a prepared statement saying members will be counseled to not allow or participate in marriages below the age of consent.
FLDS member Willie Jessop released the statement this afternoon and said it would apply to all members of the church.
"The church commits it will not preside over the marriage of any woman under the age of legal consent in the jurisdiction in which the marriage takes place," Jessop said.
The statement comes on the heels of a judge's order today that released all FLDS children in custody has already reunited some mothers with their children and has parents criss-crossing the state of Texas to get their children back.
But not every attorney is happy.
Natalie E. Malonis, a guardian ad litem who represents a child who is also a mother in state custody, has filed an an emergency motion to prevent the return of her client, saying the court's order will cause "immediate and irreparable harm to the physical safety and welfare of the child."
The threat, she said, is because the female is an identified victim of sexual abuse.
Malonis filed the emergency request this afternoon with the 51st District Court in Schleicher County asserting that Judge Barbara Walther's order lacks restrictions or provisions that take into account the immediate risk of the alleged perpetrator having access to the girl.
The attorney, in her request, said several of these concerns were brought up before Walther on Friday but she was told by the court to wait until after the hearing to discuss them because they did not apply to the other children.
Malonis said she waited, but then Walter abruptly left the bench without addressing the concerns.
"I'm working with her mother's attorney and we are going to enter our own orders that are just little more tailored to my client," she said today.
Malonis complains that she and the attorney representing her client's mother had worked out an agreement that would have kept her client under the purview of the state Department of Family and Protective Services for 30 additional days with a review set at that time. The custody arrangement would continued regardless of any of the court rulings releasing FLDS children.
The agreement would have given time for DNA testing to come back. That, she argues, was a critical component in her case because her client is a mother to a child in custody being cared for by another person. "Ad Litem requested that the court await the outcome of DNA results before entering an order so that a person entitled to possession could be properly identified for each infant in custody."
Malonis is asking for an emergency stay of Walther's order so she and the other attorney have time to submit a negotiated order for the protection of her client.
Overall, however, the order releasing the children taken in the raid on the YFZ Ranch was what attorneys and parents had been hoping for since the country's largest child custody case commenced back in April.
"We gave her an order and we're pleased she signed an order," said Julie Balovich, a lawyer for the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Society which represents 48 mothers who challenged the decision to place their children in foster care.
Susan Hays, a court-appointed attorney representing one of the mothers, said she picked up her client and drove her across Texas as soon as the order was filed.
"The little girl is sleeping right now after we played a game of spot the cows," Hays said. hey are now driving to other foster care facilities to pick up the mother's other children.
The order requires parenting classes, cooperation in an ongoing child abuse investigation including home visits and interviews between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.
The order also requires all children involved in the custody case to remain in Texas unless they get prior approval from the court. Parents can pick up their children from foster care facilities but must sign affidavits and be photographed.
"We're really grateful to have this order signed," said FLDS member Willie Jessop as he left the courthouse. He said logistics were still being worked out about returning the children to their parents and asked for privacy during the reunion. Most shelters are not prepared for what will happen next he said.
"We are grateful that the court at least allowed mothers and children to come back," Jessop said. "We wished it was a better order, but hey, it gets the children and the mothers back and we'll take it."
A spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said the agency was pleased with the court's order.
"It accomplishes two important goals. It allows the children to be returned safely to their families and caregivers in a prompt and orderly manner," Marleigh Meisner said this morning.
"Second, the court's order ensures that the state's investigation of abuse and neglect continues with strong provisions in place to prevent interference and ensure compliance by the parents. The safety of these children remains our only goal in this case."
The order returns all of the FLDS children, but it does not end the child welfare investigation into allegations of abuse and neglect on the YFZ Ranch. However, that investigation will enter a new phase with Texas Child Protective Services having to prove abuse individually - instead of en masse like a decision last month.
"It remains to be seen what the process is going to look like for the investigation," said Laura Shockley, an attorney representing a group of young women the state alleged to be minors but were really adults.
The parents are willing to participate in the investigation, attorneys said. Some will not be moving back to the YFZ Ranch to make a good-faith showing with CPS.
"I've heard there are a number of people that are returning to the ranch," Shockley said. "I think it's a variety of reasons. I do know that my clients in particular, they are willing to participate in the process to reach a final resolution."
While the order said that the children could be released today, the foster care facilities may not be set up to let them go just yet. Parents will have to sign affidavits and be photographed.
"Our only focus at this time is to get the children home as quickly as possible. That's all we're going to be focusing our attention on the next few days," said Criselda Pac, an attorney for Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, which represents five FLDS mothers. "It's not an agreed order, it's the court's own order."
The Texas Supreme Court and the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin both ruled that Texas child welfare authorities acted improperly in removing more than 450 children from the YFZ Ranch while they investigated allegations of abuse. The courts ordered Walther to return more than 130 children to their parents - but allowed her to set conditions. It also allowed Child Protective Services the ability to continue its investigation.
Negotiations broke down in court on Friday, leaving parents and attorneys unsure of when they will be reunited with their children. The Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Society had gathered enough signatures from FLDS mothers to push the judge to sign the original agreement, but instead this latest version became the order.
"My clients are incredibly grateful and they really hope that their children get to come home," Balovich said. "They're ready to pick them up as soon as they can."
National officials with the ACLU also praised Monday's order.
"Parents and children should not be separated without the most compelling of justifications," said Daniel Mach, director of litigation with the organization's program on "Freedom of Religion and Belief. "Judge Walther's new order allows the children to return to their homes, their parents, and their siblings, while permitting (CPS) to continue investigation into any and all allegations of child abuse."
The YFZ Ranch was raided April 3 when Texas child welfare workers and law enforcement responded to the FLDS property on a report of a 16-year-old girl who was pregnant and in an abusive, polygamous marriage with an older man. The girl was never found, an arrest warrant for the alleged husband was dropped and Texas authorities are still investigating whether the original call was a hoax.
Once on the ranch, authorities said they found other signs of abuse, prompting Walther to order the removal of all of the FLDS children.
Texas child welfare authorities had claimed to have as many as 31 pregnant or underage mothers in custody. They were young women the FLDS insisted were adults. On Sunday, Shockley told the Deseret News that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has declared all but "four or five" to be adults.
"They all had birthdays last Friday," attorney Andrea Sloan said.The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services could not immediately confirm the status of the "disputed minors."