Snag in deal to return Texas sect kids to parents

Associated Press/June 1, 2008

San Angelo, Texas - Parents' hopes of quick reunions with more than 400 children removed from a polygamist sect's ranch were dashed Friday after their attorneys and a judge clashed over proposed restrictions.

A decision by Texas District Judge Barbara Walther means that to regain custody, the 38 mothers who filed the complaint that led the Texas Supreme Court to reject the state's massive seizure must personally sign an agreement their attorneys and state child-welfare officials have proposed.

That could add days to the process, attorneys for some of the other mothers likely affected by the decision said, because the women are scattered across the state to be close to their children in foster care.

"It's not as simple as going across the street and setting up a booth," said attorney Andrea Sloan, who represents several young FLDS women and minors who contend they should be reclassified as adults.

Walther had wanted to add restrictions to the agreement worked out by the parents' attorneys and Texas Child Protective Services, but the parents' attorneys argued that she didn't have the authority.

The judge then said she would sign the initial document, but only after all 38 mothers involved in the case the high court ruled on signed it first.

Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for legal aid attorneys representing those mothers, said the requirement was unexpected but attorneys would meet over the weekend and decide what the next step is.

"We're still working to get the children back," she said. "We're going to keep going through the process. We're going to keep working with CPS and the courts to get these families back together."

State officials had said earlier that children could start being returned Monday, but attorneys for the parents said the new requirement made timing for the reunions uncertain.

The high court on Thursday affirmed an appeals court ruling ordering Walther to reverse her decision last month putting all children from the Yearning For Zion Ranch into foster case. The Supreme Court and the appeals court rejected the state's argument that all the children were in immediate danger from what it said was a cycle of sexual abuse of teenage girls at the ranch.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which runs the west Texas ranch, denies any abuse of the children, who were seized in a raid nearly two months ago. Church officials say they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

A draft agreement released by CPS attorney Gary Banks earlier Friday said the parents could get their children back beginning Monday after showing identification and pledging to take parenting classes and remain in Texas.

State officials had reached the tentative agreement with the 38 mothers, who have 124 children in custody, and had agreed that the order would be extended to all but a few specific children.

The last-minute snag was a blow to parents who had thought hundreds of happy reunions were imminent.

"There was an opportunity today for relief in this, and it was not granted," said Willie Jessop, an FLDS elder.

Laura Shockley, an attorney for several children and mothers not part of the original appellate court case, predicted more filings Monday in the court that originally ruled against the state's action, the 3rd District Court of Appeals in Austin. That court ordered Walther to allow the children to return to their parents in a reasonable time.

Under the deal CPS released, the families won't be able to leave Texas until Aug. 31 but would be allowed to move back to the ranch. It also calls for parenting classes and visits by CPS to interview children and parents in the child abuse investigation.

Walther wanted to remove the August deadline and provide for psychological evaluations of the children. She also wanted it specified that parents can't travel more than 60 miles from their residence without 48 hours' notice. She also wanted CPS to have access to the ranch and the children at all times necessary for any investigation.

Walther ruled last month that the children should be placed in foster care after a chaotic custody hearing involving hundreds of lawyers representing the individual children and parents.

The Third Court of Appeals last week that the state failed to show that any more than five of the teenage girls were being sexually abused, and had offered no evidence of sexual or physical abuse against the other children.

Texas officials claimed at one point that there were 31 teenage girls at the ranch who were pregnant or had been pregnant, but later conceded that about half of those mothers, if not more, were adults. One was 27.

Roughly 430 children from the ranch are in foster care after two births, numerous reclassifications of adult women initially held as minors and a handful of agreements allowing parents to keep custody while the Supreme Court considered the case.

The FLDS, which teaches that polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

In an ongoing criminal investigation separate from the custody dispute, Texas authorities collected DNA swabs Thursday from sect leader Warren Jeffs. A search warrant for the DNA alleges that Jeffs had "spiritual" marriages with four girls, ages 12 to 15.

Jeffs, who is revered as a prophet, is serving a prison sentence for a Utah conviction of being accomplice to rape in the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to a 19-year-old sect member. He awaits trial in Arizona on similar charges.

Associated Press writer Jim Vertuno in Austin contributed to this report.

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