FLDS lose custody of kids

Texas decides all children inside ranch at risk of harm or neglect

Deseret Morning News, Utah/April 8, 2008

San Angelo, Texas - First, Texas welfare officials are looking for more shelters to house more than 401 children taken from an FLDS ranch near here over the past five days.

Then, they'll be looking for foster homes.

Before Monday, a judge had determined that 18 children from the compound were taken into "legal, temporary custody" of the state of Texas, meaning they would be placed with foster families while legal proceedings were conducted.

Now, the judge has ordered Texas to place into that category all 401 children - ranging from infants to 17-year-olds. And that count was expected to rise.

"We do believe there probably are other children still at the ranch, and if so, they, too, will be removed," said Marleigh Meisner, spokeswoman for Texas Child Protective Services.

"We have provided information on all of these (children), and the judge has made a determination that there is a significant risk of harm, or these are indeed victims of abuse and neglect, and they should be removed and placed into custody of Texas temporarily," she said.

She called the roundup the state's largest child welfare operation since the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco 15 years ago.

So far, 133 women have left their homes on the secluded ranch of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, presumably to be with their children. As of late Monday, all were being housed in a makeshift shelter in a building at the historic Fort Concho in San Angelo, about 45 miles from their compound.

State officials said the adult women are being sheltered as a courtesy to them and their children.

"These are women that wanted to come. They asked to come. They came voluntarily. They're free to leave anytime, but they have thus far chosen to stay," Meisner said.

Men at the YFZ Ranch are not allowed to leave their 1,700-acre compound while police investigators continue their search.

"We're controlling access to the ranch, in and out," Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said Monday.

Even after the men are allowed to leave, they won't be able to see their children immediately.

"The men at this time don't have any right to visit their children at the shelter," Meisner said. A judge will have to decide later if visitation is appropriate.

Exactly how many people live at the ranch, no one seems to know. Court documents filed in San Angelo by FLDS Church leader Merril Jessop's attorney, Nathan Butler, described the ranch as "essentially an entire unincorporated city or neighborhood of 300 to 400 residents." He indicated the property contains several homes, a temple, a doctor's office, a school, a cheese manufacturing plant, a cement plant and "other structures."

Mange said she thought there were about 20 homes on the ranch, each two or three stories tall and housing more than one family.

The raids began Thursday night. Early last week, CPS workers received a phone call from a 16-year-old girl on the ranch who said she was being abused. A search warrant signed by 51st District Judge Barbara Walther ordered officers to search the buildings and vehicles on the ranch for any information about an underage girl, her approximately 8-month-old child and any information regarding her marriage to Dale Barlow.

Investigators here say they now believe Barlow is no longer in Texas. There have been reports that a Dale Barlow with ties to the FLDS community is in Utah or Arizona. Barlow is on probation for pleading no contest in 2007 to charges of conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor. The victim in that case was a 16-year-old girl who had a child with him.

Allison Palmer, with the Schleicher County Attorney's Office, said she is aware of such reports, but the focus of the agency now is on the search efforts. "I think efforts will turn toward him later," she told the Deseret Morning News.

Whether or not the girl has been located and/or taken into custody is still not clear, either.

"It's very, very difficult in these interviews to determine who we have in custody," Meisner said. "Their names change. Many of them have the same name. Information is sketchy. Some (of those removed from the compound) are cooperating with our interviews, but as you can imagine, the situation is intense."

A second search warrant was signed Sunday ordering officers to search the ranch, including "vaults, safes, lockboxes, locked drawers, medical facilities" and other areas.

One unidentified man was arrested at the ranch and charged with interfering with the duties of a public servant, a class B misdemeanor. "He was interfering with a police order," Mange said.

An affidavit will be filed in court for each of the 401 children, and each child will be assigned a guardian ad litem attorney. A judge will decide each child's case separately.

Meisner said Texas has a "critical shortage" of foster homes and the situation is even more difficult now with so many children in its custody. She said workers try to keep sibling groups together when possible. "Certainly, this is a different circumstance," she said, since most of the children from the polygamist compound have many siblings.

The state will have 14 days for a judge to determine if the children will be permanently removed from their homes and parents.

"Once we get these kids to court, we will continue to monitor and make recommendations," Meisner said.

The first "full adversarial hearing" about custody of the children is scheduled for April 17.

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