SAN ANGELO, Texas, May 19, 2008(CBS/AP) A 6-year-old son of polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs did not suffer physical or sexual abuse while living with his mother at the group’s Texas ranch, a child welfare case worker testified Monday.
Child Protective Services case worker Joni Manske testified during one of several hearings in which more than 400 individual cases are being considered.
The massive custody cases got under way Monday in all five Tom Green County courtrooms, with parents learning what they must do to regain custody of the children.
Caseworkers for Child Protective Services have until June 5 to have a hearing on every single child – 400-plus hearings to take place over a 2-1/2 week period, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann. For the courts, the logistics are daunting: To accommodate the 200 or more parents, judges in five separate court rooms simultaneously will hear 10 to 12 cases a day.
Texas authorities have 463 children in foster care, taken because of allegations that members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints were forcing underage girls into marriage and sex at the sect’s compound.
“Of course we want to say this isn’t about religion,” the sect’s leader, William Jessup, told reporters. “I think it’s sick and pathetic.”
The attorney for the 6-year-old boy’s mother, Sharon Barlow, objected to the state plan for her to get the boy back, saying it wasn’t clear enough. Barlow, 34, must take parenting classes, find a safe living environment and undergo a psychological evaluation, according to the plan.
“This plan is so vague and so broad that my client has no idea what she can do now,” attorney Donna Guion said.
State District Judge Barbara Walther agreed the plan should be more specific and asked Guion to provide ideas on how that might be done.
Walther asked Barlow if she understood if her parental rights were subject to termination if she did not comply with the plan. Barlow softly replied “yes” but did not testify otherwise.
The boy is one of 10 in state custody believed to be the children of Jeffs, the sect’s jailed leader and prophet. Jeffs was convicted in Utah of being an accomplice to rape in the marriage of a 14-year-old to a 19-year-old.
Authorities have not identified the mothers of more than 100 children. Officials have been trying to group siblings together with their mothers as the custody case moves forward. So far, 168 mothers and 69 fathers have been identified in court documents, though DNA test results are two to four weeks away.
Strassman reports that many fathers have refused DNA testing, worried that the state might try and prove they fathered children with underage girls and press criminal charges.
Child welfare officials have complained that women and children have given different names and lied about ages. The agency has also struggled with identification of children and women because many have similar names, and some of the young women, who don’t wear makeup and braid their hair, look much younger than their actual age.
As many as two dozen of the girls held in custody may be adults; authorities are still trying determine their actual ages.
Strassmann reports that some lawyers for the families say it’s the state that is the real abuser.
“These children may be sexually abused. The children may be physically abused,” Robert Scherrer, an attorney for one of the sect’s children told CBS Radio. “There’s a whole lot of maybes and what-ifs, but there’s not a whole lot of evidence.”
The children were removed from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado during an April 3 raid that began after someone called a domestic abuse hot line claiming to be a pregnant 16-year-old abused by a much older husband. Strassmann reports that today that case was dismissed. No one ever found her — or the child she claimed to have.