Representing sect's youth proves a complicated task

Questions loom and client time is chaotic, but for 350 Texas lawyers, it's about the kids

Houston Chronicle/April 24, 2008

The lawyers who arrived in San Angelo last week were given IDs, health screenings, multiple shots of hand-sanitizing Purell and a colored folder for each client - most got one folder, some more than one.

Orange was for the pregnant girls, one lawyer said. Another said pink was for the youngest children.

They met with their clients in a corner of the crowded local coliseum. Most lawyers didn't get to talk to parents or do any investigation, as is customary. Most didn't get to see the evidence gathered by Child Protective Services, even in court.

About 350 Texas lawyers are now realizing the sobering journey they've agreed to, one that's taking them into unknown legal territory, in the cases of the children from the Eldorado polygamist sect ranch.

More than 400 children were removed in a raid this month on the Yearning for Zion Ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a renegade Mormon splinter group that allegedly believes in marrying off underage girls to older men. State child-welfare authorities said there was evidence of physical and sexual abuse at the ranch.

"This is wildly different than anything I've encountered," said Betty J. Luke, a South Texas College of Law professor who works on clinical studies. She's represented children before. But this week, she's had trouble getting to sleep with the begging cries of her new 7-year-old client's last phone call echoing in her head.

Luke, like hundreds of other Texas lawyers, answered calls and e-mails seeking volunteers last week.

Though many of the lawyers praised local court officials for doing the best under incredible circumstances, there was also what Luke calls an "ugly side" to the two-day hearing that decided the temporary fate of the children.

"There was no meaningful way to have my client addressed at this cattle call. There has been no way yet to meaningfully represent my client," said Luke, who has had trouble reaching a Texas Child Protective Services case worker.

Biggest case in history

Donna Broom, another South Texas College of Law clinical faculty volunteer, compared watching the large temporary custody hearing on a monitor outside the courtroom to "watching the O.J. Simpson trial on TV and trying to adequately represent someone in the case."

"Everything is different here," she said. "These children have a way of life so different from a typical child. You can't just sit them in front of an Xbox or a TV set and say acclimate yourself.

"This is the biggest child custody case in history, and there will be a lot of law coming out of this case," said Broom.

And that's a lot of what will happen next. There will likely be many legal requests to the local judge and to state appellate and federal courts that could intervene. A federal civil rights lawsuit against a state official is another possibility.

Guy Choate, a San Angelo lawyer who has put aside his own work to help organize the representation of the children, said he knows lawyers across the state are working on challenges to the temporary custody hearing that local state District Judge Barbara Walther held for all the children at once.

Egos reined in

"The biggest complaint is that each child has not had the separate 14-day hearing they are entitled to," said Choate. "There are questions about whether to appeal, whether it would be in state court or federal court, in San Angelo or where the children wind up."

He said he was pleased with how the lawyers sublimated their egos and worked together.

"It was really impressive. I've been in hearings with 10 lawyers where I wanted to kill nine of them," said Choate.

Sheryl Johnson-Todd, a Houston family law lawyer volunteer, said she was overwhelmed by the generosity and sacrifice of the people of San Angelo.

Johnson-Todd said some of the information about the case not made public explains more of what's happened and people will "have to trust a little that we're not all flaming idiots out there."

The State Bar also has asked lawyers to contribute to legal foundations to help defray the costs for volunteers and to Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, which is working to represent indigent mothers.

At the end of the hearing last week, the judge praised the army of attorneys.

"Before I make my ruling," Walther began, "on behalf of the judges of the state of Texas, I want to thank every member of the bar for doing an outstanding job for their clients. I have never been more proud of all of you."

Chronicle reporter Terri Langford contributed to this story.

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