Chaos marks hearing on custody of sect children

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Times Staff Writer

The largest child custody case in U.S. history got off to a chaotic start Thursday as hundreds of attorneys representing 416 children seized from a polygamist compound jumped up all over the courtroom to raise a barrage of objections.

“We’re not going to have people jumping up and down,” state District Judge Barbara L. Walther said as attorneys attempted to file motions and object to the manner in which the hearing was being handled.

“I wish I could give you a perfect solution, but there is not one,” she said after an attorney argued that each individual child should have the opportunity to present evidence in his or her case. “Give us a chance to get things going and see if this will work.”


Yet after barely 40 minutes, attorneys watching the proceedings through closed- circuit TV in a nearby building began to shout that they were not able to view copies of the first exhibit. After an hourlong recess during which a bailiff distributed copies to the other room, the hearing resumed with scores of attorneys still waiting in line to read the documents.

The logistics of determining the fate of such a huge number of children proved cumbersome throughout the day. More than 350 attorneys had come from across Texas to represent children, and others represented the parents. The state’s Division of Child Protective Services is seeking to strip the parents of custody and place the children in foster homes or up for adoption.

Attorneys for the state agency allege that the children were sexually abused, or at risk of sexual abuse, at the remote YFZ Ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The hearing, which by state statute must be held within 14 days of the children being removed from their homes, is supposed to determine whether the children, who range in age from 6 months to 17 years old, will remain in temporary state custody or return to their families.

Ordinarily, each child would have an individual hearing, but the state is seeking to handle all 416 children as a single case, arguing that the sexual and physical abuse at the ranch was systemic.

“This is probably the biggest child custody action that’s ever taken place in the United States, and it’s also one of the most complex,” said Peter N. Swisher, a professor at the National Center for Family Law at the University of Richmond.


“Any evidence of child abuse has to be investigated as a matter of state law. . . . And it has to be conducted on an individual basis because the facts are going to differ from child to family.”

The process of outlining individual cases, attorneys said, is complicated not only because of the unprecedented volume of cases, but because of the complicated tangle of relationships within the YFZ Ranch, and the inhabitants’ suspicion of outsiders.

Two weeks after the children were seized, some attorneys complained that they had not been able to meet the children they were assigned to represent.

And many who have met their clients said the children would not reveal their ages, their names or their parents’ names.

Scores of children have the same last name -- Jessop, Barlow or Jeffs -- but it is unclear if or how they are related.

Susan Hays, an attorney who traveled from Dallas to represent a young female, said that she had not been able to find the father of her client or any documentation.


“All I have to go on is what the mother says,” she said. “That’s it.”

In an attempt to overcome some of the barriers involved in dealing with the sect, state attorneys on Thursday asked the court to order DNA testing that might determine each child’s parents.

The judge has not ruled on the motion.

By the end of the nearly 12-hour hearing, no decisions had been made on the fate of the children, and only three witnesses had testified.

One witness, a Department of Public Safety sergeant, Danny Crawford, testified that he discovered a church bishop’s records listing the names and ages of members of about 38 families, some with 16- or 17-year-old wives.

Texas law does not allow girls younger than 16 to marry, even with parental approval.

Another witness, child welfare supervisor Angie Voss, offered more details on what investigators found at the ranch.

Some women may have had children when they were as young as 13, she said, and at least five girls under 18 are pregnant or have children.

During cross-examination, attorneys repeatedly questioned why investigators had decided to remove boys and babies from the ranch. Voss said that she believed the boys were groomed to be perpetrators and that the babies should not be returned to the ranch only to be abused 10 years from now.


“I believe it is not safe for any child to return to the ranch, because the adults I’ve spoken with expressed belief they aren’t doing anything harmful to their children,” Voss said.

“They are living under an umbrella of belief that having children at a young age is a blessing.

“Any child in that environment cannot be safe.”

Toward the end of the day, there were some signs that the case might move more quickly.

After a continuing barrage of objections -- many making the same point -- Walther ordered a short recess to allow attorneys to coordinate their objections and then asked them to start with “your best objection from each side.”

“No objection, your honor,” an attorney responded, to loud cheers throughout both rooms.


P.J. Huffstutter contributed to this report.