SAN ANGELO, Texas – Authorities decided to remove 416 children from the polygamist Yearning For Zion ranch in Eldorado after child-welfare officials discovered a “pervasive belief” among them “that underage marriage and children having children was what they were supposed to do,” a child-welfare supervisor testified Thursday.
“When the prophet decided they were to be married – and no age is too young – they would be married, and they wanted to have as many babies as they could.” said Child Protective Services supervisor Angie Voss, who testified for several hours during a marathon child custody hearing in San Angelo. “The boy children, the girl children, the male adults, the female adults, this is their belief.”
That, Ms. Voss said, was the main reason CPS officials went to the ranch operated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints looking for one girl and emerged with an order to remove all children.
Attorneys for the parents and some of the children are trying to show that CPS overstepped its bounds. They argue that at least some of the younger children and the boys should be allowed to return to the ranch. CPS, however, maintains that if children weren’t in immediate danger of sexual abuse, they were being raised in an environment where sexual abuse was encouraged.
Ms. Voss’ testimony came on the first day of the hearing and went into the night Thursday. She was still on the stand when Judge Barbara Walther declared a recess. Ms. Voss will be on the stand when the hearing resumes today.
The first day of the hearing was marked by starts and stops – and objections and motions from hundreds of lawyers – against the backdrop of a logistical nightmare for the Tom Green County district court.
Attorneys for the 416 children, nearly 200 mothers and dozens of fathers argued everything from the authenticity of a couple of health records to whether the case should be dropped altogether on the basis of religious freedom.
After the hearing came to a 30-minute halt over records Thursday morning, Judge Walther, clearly exasperated with the pace, admonished the courtroom full of lawyers that while she would entertain their objections, she wished they would stick to the task at hand: Figuring out whether the state had enough evidence to continue holding the children in its care or if the kids should be sent home pending further investigation of the case, and “whether the evidence may or may not justify the actions taken 14 days ago.”
Judge Walther had been expected to issue a temporary order Thursday or today concerning the immediate future of the children removed two weeks ago from the compound outside tiny Eldorado. Thursday night, some attorneys said they still expected a decision today, but others weren’t so sure.
During her testimony, Ms. Voss said she didn’t think the children should return to the ranch.
“I’m very concerned about the overall mind-set that children are born and grown and that the boys become perpetrators and the girls become victims of sexual abuse,” she said.
“I believe it is not safe for any child to return to the ranch because the adults that I have spoken with who live on the ranch have expressed to me their belief that they aren’t doing anything harmful to their children and that this practice of children being united and having children is part of their overall culture or belief system.”
Amy Hennington, representing some of the men at the compound, was clearly annoyed at the authorities’ insistence that none of the kids return to the ranch.
“So on the supposition that in the future this may happen, these other 400 children should not be with their families,” she said to Ms. Voss.
Ms. Voss said CPS went to the compound the night of April 3 to inquire about a girl named Sarah who had called a domestic abuse hotline earlier that week. Sarah reported that she was 16 years old, in a polygamous marriage, had a child and was being abused on the ranch.
Two men at the ranch gates denied there were any girls by that name living on the ranch but let five investigators in to talk to other girls.
During those interviews, Ms. Voss said, investigators thought they may have identified Sarah.
“We learned that a few of the girls knew of the Sarah that we were looking for, and they advised that they had seen her within the past week at the ranch,” Ms. Voss said.
She said one girl said she hadn’t seen her mother in two years and told her that Merrill Jessop, the ranch leader, said it was “none of her business” where her mother was.
She also said that children reported that they were happy to be at the ranch and that some of them had come from Arizona and Utah, not always with their parents.
Among the complicating factors in Ms. Voss’ investigation has been determining which children belonged to which parents – tangles that still have yet to be worked out.
“If a father fell out of favor in some way, his wives would be reassigned to another man and he would become their father, so the children moved to different houses,” she said.
The children were “not at all upset by that,” Ms. Voss said.
Family files found
The first substantial testimony of the day came from Sgt. Danny Crawford of the Texas Department of Public Safety. He testified that he had found files on 38 families – mostly just sheets of paper with lists of names and ages – in a safe in one of the houses.
Under questioning, Sgt. Crawford revealed some details about the ranch families – including at least one case of a 46-year-old man being married to a 17-year-old girl. There was no evidence of whether she had a child listed on the forms and nothing to indicate she’d been married illegally.
One attorney asked Sgt. Crawford how many others were listed in the documents.
“Whoo,” Sgt. Crawford exclaimed in a deep drawl from the stand, to chuckles in the courtroom, as he shuffled the papers in his hand. “Well sir, right here there’s 14 on this one. I believe [one of the fathers] had eight or nine. There’s one over here with 22. They’re shown as wives.”
The files were incomplete. They didn’t show birth dates, and they didn’t delineate the relationships between the children and the mothers – only the husbands and the wives.
The names Sgt. Crawford read from some of the papers indicated the unusual culture and, in some cases, the confusion surrounding some of the families and their relationships. The hundreds of children had only a handful of last names – Jessop, Jeffs, Johnson and Steed being among the most common.
Under questioning by an attorney representing some of the mothers, Mr. Crawford said that some records seem to indicate underage marriages, but he was not specific.
Meanwhile, some of attorneys for the children who have been coordinating the overall effort to represent the kids met with church representatives Wednesday night and Thursday on a possible settlement: for the men to leave the ranch and the women and children to be allowed to live there under CPS supervision.
Ten hours into the hearing, such an offer had not been made publicly, and many of the attorneys hadn’t heard that the meetings were going on.
To accommodate the influx of media and attorneys, the courtroom was extended to the City Hall auditorium several hundred yards behind the courthouse. A live two-way feed allowed attorneys to testify from the auditorium.
‘One client at a time’
“We’re going to handle this as best we can, one client at a time,” Judge Walther said upon greeting the crowd. She said she would deal with cases in a block when possible and individually when necessary.
Many of the attorneys, particularly those appointed to represent the children, met their young clients Wednesday for the first time. Some mothers and fathers had yet to meet their lawyers late Wednesday.
Dallas attorney Susan Hays, who normally represents pregnant teenage girls, is among the hundreds of lawyers volunteering their services for the children.
She hasn’t been able to speak with her 2-year-old client’s father – “I don’t know his name,” she said – or interview the child, and she has no access to birth certificates or other documentation. The information she’s been able to glean from the child’s mother is spotty. Most of the attorneys have yet to see the cases that Child Protective Services have on their clients.
Largely missing from the spotlight has been the fathers – both in media interviews and discussions from attorneys about their representation. Several lawyers, including Ms. Hays, have said the mothers won’t divulge who the men are or where they are – although several were walking into the courthouse to watch the proceedings on Thursday. It was unclear if they planned to testify, although attorneys indicated Thursday night that some of the parents might take the stand today.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has run the private, walled-off ranch in rural Schleicher County for more than four years, practices plural marriage as the main tenet of its religion.
The breakaway Mormon sect also has communities in Utah, Arizona, Colorado and Bountiful, British Columbia. Its leader and “prophet,” Warren Jeffs, is imprisoned on charges related to marrying children to older men.
The closed society rarely talks to the media, but mothers have spoken repeatedly to reporters this week in an effort to win public sympathy for the case.