Marathon hearing on Eldorado children starts today


CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES

Marathon hearing on Eldorado children starts today

San Angelo courtroom won’t fit all the lawyers for the 416 children taken into state custody.


AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Thursday, April 17, 2008

At a hearing today in San Angelo, Child Protective Services lawyers will try to convince state district judge Barbara Walther that they were justified in removing 416 children from a polygamous group’s compound in Eldorado and that the children would be at substantial risk of abuse if they were to return.

If they don’t prove those things — as well as show that the agency made reasonable efforts to keep the children in their homes — state law requires the judge to send them home.

Tony Gutierrez/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Dan, 24, a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has two children currently in state custody. ‘It is lifeless without our kids around here,’ he says at the ranch.

CPS lawyers will argue that the children, who are now in shelters in San Angelo, should be placed into foster care; their parents, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, will argue their children should be with them.

“You’re dealing with the core essence of humanity: Whether I have the right to parent the children I bring into the world,” said state district judge Darlene Byrne, who oversees the CPS docket of cases for Travis County. “It’s very serious.”

Today’s hearing is a typical step that must come within two weeks of CPS removing children from their home because of abuse or neglect.

But there is nothing typical about this case.

“This is certainly the largest case anybody has been able to identify in Texas or in the country,” said Kim Davey, a spokeswoman for the State Bar of Texas, which helped arrange for some 350 lawyers around Texas to go to San Angelo to represent the children for free. State law mandates that each child be appointed an attorney.

Austin lawyer Tom Ausley said Tuesday he didn’t know who his client would be or whether the child would be old enough to talk to him. The majority of the children are under 5, CPS officials said.

“I wanted to help,” said Ausley, who said he’ll stay with a friend because hotels are booked in San Angelo. “I am going with an open mind.”

Walther’s quaint courtroom at the 80-year-old Tom Green County Courthouse can’t accommodate all the lawyers. Some are expected to watch from the nearby City Hall, where there will be a live video feed to allow lawyers to talk with the judge, said Guy Choate of the State Bar.

It’s not clear how that will work. “Just do the math,” Choate said. “If each attorney spends one minute, that’s seven hours.”

It’s also unclear how long the hearing will last or when Walther — the same judge who approved CPS’ request to remove the children — will make a decision.

It’s possible there could be different outcomes for each child.

CPS’s investigation, which came after a 16-year-old girl at the compound called to report she was being sexually and physically abused by her husband, found teenage girls are required to have sex with much older men they join in “spiritual marriages” and that young boys are groomed to become sexual predators.”This pattern and practice places all of the children located at the (Yearning for Zion) Ranch, both male and female, to risks of emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse,” a CPS investigator wrote in an affidavit.

CPS may argue that the children are not safe with their mothers.

“You have to remember that their mothers were there; they were there and a part of all this,” said CPS spokesman Darrell Azar. “Unfortunately, the women … have been unwilling or unable to protect these children from a pattern of sexual abuse.”

Mothers of the children told reporters this week their children have not been abused.

Rather, they “have been so protected and loved,” said Marie, a mother of three sons who declined to give her last name.

Whether the children are sent to foster care or back home, the judge could order parents to attend counseling, Byrne said. The ultimate goal is always to reunite children with their parents if that can be safely done, she said.

This may be the first in a series of hearings on the children’s fate. The court must make a final decision on where the children live within a year, though a six-month extension is possible.

Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday said it’s important to make sure the children are not being abused.

“Where there has not been abuse,” he said during a KVET-FM appearance, “we’ll get these families back together as soon as we can.”

cmaclaggan@statesman.com; 445-3548

Additional information from the Associated Press

 

The story so far:

March 29-31

A 16-year-old girl who said she lived at the Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado made calls to a domestic violence shelter to report she had been sexually and physically abused by her 49-year-old husband. She said she had one child and was pregnant again.

April 3

Law enforcement officials forced their way into the compound with a search warrant and Child Protective Services investigators came inside to interview residents. CPS workers stayed all night.

April 4-7

CPS transported all 416 children from the compound to shelters in San Angelo after determining that some had been sexually and physically abused and the rest were at risk of abuse. Voluntarily, 139 women joined the children. Judge Barbara Walther granted CPS temporary legal custody of the children.

April 13

Walther ordered CPS to confiscate women’s cell phones to prevent witness tampering.

April 14

Women who do not have children 4 and under are no longer allowed to remain at the shelters (state officials said they were coaching children during interviews). Fifty-one women were taken back to the compound; six chose to go elsewhere. A total of 82 mothers of young children remained at the shelters. Roughly two dozen teen boys were taken to another location.

Today

Hearing begins at 10 a.m. in Tom Green County Courthouse.

Source: Department of Family and Protective Services

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