SAN ANGELO, Texas – The judge overseeing a massive investigation into alleged child abuse within a polygamous sect on Sunday ordered law officers to confiscate electronic devices from women and children in state custody at two shelters, cutting off their contact with family.
The order, signed Sunday morning by 51st District Judge Barbara Walther, came after someone used a cell phone to send out images of living conditions at one shelter and to speak with a newspaper reporter.
State troopers confiscated at least one box full of cell phones, chargers and other devices, said Marissa Gonzales, a spokeswoman for Texas Child Protective Services.
The search continued late into the afternoon. More than a dozen troopers were seen leaving a building being used to house boys at Fort Concho, and one used a metal detector to sweep its porch.
Dozens of boys stood outside the building during the search. Later, they gathered on the parade grounds at the historic military fort and sang songs from what appeared to be a hymnal. At one point the boys, who are being kept in separate quarters from the women and younger children, formed a line and faced a group of FLDS women and children about 50 yards across the grassy field. The boys and the women then sang. It lasted for nearly 90 minutes.
Earlier in the day, the women and children were allowed to hold church services, Gonzales said.
Texas authorities raided the YFZ Ranch, owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, on April 3 after a 16-year-old girl contacted a family violence shelter and said she was being physically and sexually abused.
Over four days, authorities removed 416 children from the ranch, located in Eldorado and named after the FLDS hymn ‘Yearning for Zion.’ They allowed 139 women to stay with the children.
Authorities still have not located the girl, but continue to say they believe she is among the children in state custody. This weekend, the Texas Department of Public Safety acknowledged it may have named the wrong man in the original search and arrest warrant that triggered the raid of the FLDS enclave.
Walther has set a scheduling hearing for Monday morning to decide how to handle the massive child custody case. Legal notices published online by the Eldorado Success list names of children and parents, who are advised they are being sued by the state of Texas and should get attorneys. The newspaper will print the notice in its Wednesday edition, which will start a clock ticking that gives the parents until about mid-May to file court papers in response to the state action.
Attorneys for the children told the judge this weekend that cell phones needed to be removed to prevent ‘improper communication, tampering with witnesses and interference with the attorney-client relationship.’
Gonzales was unsure whether the women had access to other telephones at the shelters.
Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney hired to represent the FLDS families, said that the authorities had told the women to give up their cell phones or they would be asked to leave.
He challenged state authorities running the shelters to let the media inside to independently verify the living conditions.
“If the conditions at the compound are as good as they say they are, then let the ladies come out and talk to the media,” said Parker, who is serving as a spokesman for the FLDS families. “It’s as simple as that.”
Parker was set to arrive in San Angelo Sunday night to act as a spokesman for the FLDS families.
On Friday, Kevin Dinnin of Baptist Child and Family Services, which has helped with sheltering of the woman and children, said every effort is being made to keep them comfortable. Marleigh Meisner, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said Friday none of the women were interested in speaking to the media.
However, five women spoke with the Salt Lake City-based Deseret News and said conditions in the shelter are crowded and the children are frightened.
Stephen Smith, an internal medicine physician in San Angelo and part of the medical team at Fort Concho, said the same thing, adding that women and children are asking to go home.
State officials have said that no one, including the children’s fathers, will be allowed to see them before Thursday’s custody hearing.
Also on Sunday, the San Angelo City Council held a special session to authorized continued use of housing and other services for the relocated FLDS members, said City Councilman Dwain Morrison.
The city initially had made the facilities available to the state for 10 days. That time frame was about to expire, Morrison said.
‘We voted to continue what we had started,’ he said, noting that the new proclamation is open-ended and will not expire.
San Angelo has petitioned the state for reimbursement of $60,000 a day for the housing and other service costs. While the state has yet to act on the emergency request, Mayor J. W. Lown said he has been assured by Texas officials that his town ‘will be made whole.’