Official Describes Polygamous Sect Visit

ABC News/April 17, 2008

Children on the Yearning for Zion Ranch told a Texas state worker that they had seen the 16-year-old girl who reportedly called a local domestic abuse hotline to claim that she was beaten and sexually abused by her 49-year-old husband, spurring an investigation of child abuse on the polygamous compound, according to today's court testimony.

The children confirmed that she did have a baby but said that they did not know where she was, Angie Voss, the supervisor of investigations for Child Protective Services, said on the stand this afternoon during a custody hearing in Angelo,Texas.

"It was a very scary environment, intimidating," said Voss, who visited the ranch the night of April 3. "I was afraid."

"I saw men all around," Voss said. "It felt like the schoolhouse was surrounded."

Voss said that when she first arrived at the ranch and asked to see the girl who made the reported phone call, the men at the gates denied anyone of her description existed.

Eventually, they were allowed inside and taken to the schoolhouse, where the asked to meet with all girls who were younger than 18.

A few of the girls who spoke with CPS investigators said that they had seen the teen the CPS workers were looking for within the previous week, Voss testified. They confirmed that she did have a baby but said that they did not know where she was.

The massive custody case of 416 children taken from a polygamist sect opened today to a chorus of complaints and motions that indicate it will take a long time to sort out the children's future.

The courtroom in San Angelo was jammed with nearly 350 lawyers representing many of the children. Among all the men dressed in suits were about a dozen mothers from the sect dressed in their distinctive pioneer style ankle length dresses and a handful of men from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

During the first 40 minutes of the hearing, state District Judge Barbara Walther was confronted with the enormity of the case - the largest child custody case in the nation's history - and the difficulty in keeping order in such a complicated proceeding.

Lawyers repeatedly rose from the section where the public generally sits to make objections to the process that was just beginning, and Walther would tell them to sit down.

At one point a lawyer who said she represented an 8-year-old girl objected, protesting that each child was entitled to an individual hearing and to be able to present evidence.

A clearly frustrated Walther assured the roomful of lawyers they would be able present evidence.

"Give us a chance to get this going. Let's just try to start this process before you say its not going to work," she snapped.

The judge will eventually have to decide whether each child gets an individual hearing.

"It's embarrassing compared to how cases are usually handled," said D'Ann Johnson, a lawyer who represents three of the mothers and works for the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aide. "It's very difficult for justice to be done in this structure."

Lawyers representing the children were equally frustrated.

"It's a real monumental task -- the judge is essentially flying by the seat of her pants," said Eric Robertson, who represents one of the two-year-olds currently being housed in the San Angelo Coliseum.

Robertson told that he had spoken with a woman who claimed to be his client's mother, but had no way to verify whether she was telling the truth.

The 416 children were removed from the sect's Yearning for Zion Ranch during a weeklong raid that began April 3. The raid was prompted by a call to a domestic abuse hotline by a 16-year-old who claimed she was beaten and sexually abused by her 49-year-old husband. That girl has yet to be identified.

Rod Parker, a spokesperson for the sect, spoke about the teen in question.

"The information called in is easily checked out," said Parker. "We see no evidence of any effort to corroborate before the search."

Nevertheless, officials say they have found teenagers under the age of 16 who are pregnant or who have babies, and that they fear that returning the children to the sect would put them and other children in danger of abuse.

To bolster that point, police Sgt. Danny Crawford, who took part in the search of the compound, said he found documents in a safe on the ranch that listed husbands and wives. It included several adult men with wives who were 16, Crawford testified.

Among the names he read from the list were Jackson Jessop, who had a wife listed as 17 and a son who was 8 months old. Crawford also cited Abraham Jeffs, 35, whose wife was listed as 16 years old.

Lawyers for Texas Child Protective Services asked the court today to require DNA tests of all the parents from the sect's ranch so they could compare it to DNA of the children and establish parent and child relationships. State officials have said it has been difficult to determine who are the parents of individual children.

CPS also requested that the judge order psychological evaluations for all of the sect's parents, and that the judge allow the state to put the kids in foster care outside of the normal five-county range.

Most of the children are being housed in the San Angelo Coliseum, although 27 teenage boys have been sent 400 miles away to a facility for delinquent boys and girls.

The state said it wants to introduce medical records of three teenage girls as evidence. But all lawyers were entitled to see the records and object if they want. As they crammed the aisles to see the records, Walther called a recess.

When the hearing resumed, Walther said the initial objection to the medical records would be accepted and she asked the lawyers if they would be willing to hold their individual objections.

"Can I get a universal 'Yes, judge'"? Walther asked. The lawyers in the room answered together, "Yes, judge."

The Tom Green County courthouse was ringed with police and there were so many lawyers and reporters for the case that the state set up a video of the hearing in a building a couple blocks away from the courthouse.

Also in the overflow room were several of the sect's women who dabbed their eyes as they watched the proceeding.

Outside the courthouse, where satellite trucks lined the street, a man who said he was an FLDS father waved a photo of himself surrounded by his four children, ranging in age from an infant to about 9.

"Look, look, look," the father said. "These children are all smiling, we're happy."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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