SAN ANGELO, Tex. — A judge on Friday ordered that all 416 children seized by Texas authorities in the raid of a polygamist religious sect be held in protective custody by the state pending further investigation into whether they were abused, or were at risk of abuse in their community.
Judge Barbara Walther, after two days of testimony, issued a terse statement from the bench at Tom Green County Court saying that she had also ordered maternal and paternal testing on all the children, who range in age from infants to 17-year-olds, and expedited DNA and fingerprint testing of their parents as well.
She emphasized that the decision was preliminary and that “a safe environment” for the children was paramount, now and in the future.
The case, arising from a raid beginning April 3 at the Yearning for Zion ranch, about 45 miles from here in the small town of Eldorado, has gripped legal experts and child welfare authorities for its scale — the largest raid on a polygamist group in more than 50 years — and for the tangle of law and logistics raised by the questions of custody and religion.
For the first day and a half of the hearing, beginning on Thursday, the state presented evidence of under-age marriages and births to teenage mothers at the ranch that it said was sufficient to form a pattern that harmed the children or would put them at risk if they were released back to their parents there. The state’s witnesses have said that religion is irrelevant to the case, and when they testified about what they called a pattern of abuse they used words like culture and community instead.
The families of the 416 children began to tell their side of the story to the judge on Friday, the second day of a sprawling and sometimes confusing mass hearing to help decide what will happen next to the children.
The families first gave an explanation of their religion, which family members and their advocates insist is crucial to understanding their community and the state’s decision earlier this month to raid the ranch.
The first witness on their behalf, William John Walsh, who described himself as a theological expert, said the church did not hold as part of its written theology that under-age girls should marry older men. The church’s prophets, Mr. Walsh told the court, decide when a couple is ready, but the liturgy itself takes no position. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or F.L.D.S., broke off from the mainstream Mormon Church when the Mormons disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.
Mr. Walsh said that the breakaway sect did not teach, “Ah, let’s marry an under-age girl.” The second witness, a mother from the community, Merylin Jeffs, 29, told Judge Walther that she was willing to move away from the ranch if necessary to protect her 7-year-old daughter, Marva. Ms. Jeffs said that she and Marva had never been separated until the raid, which began April 3. Ms. Jeffs said she would not allow her daughter to marry before age 18, “no matter the consequences.”
Neither side has presented detailed evidence about the individual children seized in the raid.
“There is a culture of young girls being pregnant by old men,” said Angie Voss, an investigator with the State Division of Child Protective Services, who participated in the raid and interviewed girls at the ranch. Ms. Voss told the court she found evidence that “more than 20 girls, some of whom are now adults, have conceived or given birth under the age of 16 or 17.”
Judge Walther is not being asked to determine final custody for the children. Under Texas law, further hearings must be held in 60 days, then again at six months if a child is removed from the home. In that case, a trial possibly by a jury, would decide final custody after a year.
Lawyers for the families said the state’s justification for the raid was flimsy and tainted by bias against the F.L.D.S. community. Evidence that older men had married or had sex with girls as young as 15 — in violation of Texas law, and a core plank of the state’s decision to remove the children — was inconclusive, they said. That a teenage girl becomes pregnant is by itself not evidence of child abuse, they said, let alone an indictment of the entire community where she lives.
“C.P.S. is trying to put the church on trial,” said Rod Parker, a lawyer and spokesman for the church, referring to the Texas Division of Child Protective Services. “In reality what it’s turning into is that C.P.S. is on trial for their high-handed and precipitous tactics in removing these children.”
Mr. Parker said that it was clear to him after the first day’s testimony on Thursday that only a “very, very small number” of cases among the 416 children might be “even remotely” a cause for concern. He also said some suspected cases of under-age marriages that authorities were investigating “go back more than 10 years, or maybe just 10 years, and didn’t occur on this ranch.”
But questions about the raid itself, by far the largest on a polygamist sect in half a century, are also continuing.
Police in Colorado Springs said in a statement late Thursday that they had arrested a woman there on Wednesday on misdemeanor charges of filing a false report in Colorado. The statement also said that the Texas Rangers had been in Colorado Springs in connection with the investigation into the ranch.
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, Tom Vinger, said Friday that Texas authorities had made no new arrests in the F.L.D.S. case. He would not comment when asked if there was any connection between the woman arrested in Colorado, Rozita Swinton, 33, and the raid in Texas.
Authorities in Texas have not found the girl whose phone call to an abuse hot line triggered the raid at the ranch. State officials said she had given her name as Sarah and that she said she was pregnant and being abused by her 50-year-old husband.
Ms. Swinton has an unlisted number and other efforts to reach her were unsuccessful.
Though this is hardly an ordinary case, data from the Texas child protective system show a preference for keeping children in the care of families or relatives. In about two thirds of custody cases, children ultimately return to families or relatives, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group in Austin. Children from roughly the remaining one third of cases end up in long-term foster care or are adopted.
But the center’s executive director, Scott McCown, a former judge, said the percentages of children returned to families were lower in abuse cases, and lower still in instances of sexual abuse.
John Dougherty reported from San Angelo, and Kirk Johnson from Denver. Dan Frosch contributed reporting from Denver, and Gretel C. Kovach from San Angelo.
Apr. 19, 2008
Kirk Johnson and John Dougherty