The attorney for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints said Tuesday that the polygamist sect intends to sue state and county officials over the April 3 raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado.
Rod Parker, the Salt Lake City-based attorney for the FLDS, wouldn’t say when a lawsuit will be filed but says the sect’s lawyers believe that they have grounds for suit after the Texas Supreme Court ordered the return of 440 children to the compound.
He said that many of the children need extensive counseling after their two-month separation from their parents and that the 1,691-acre ranch was physically damaged during the raid.
“We are carefully exploring our options,” Parker said. “We want to be careful and deliberate about it, but we also want to act quickly enough that we can get a meaningful remedy.”
Joe Spurlock, a Texas Wesleyan University law professor and former family court judge, said the Texas Family Code provides Child Protective Services with immunity from lawsuits even if the children are taken without a court order. In this case, where a court order was obtained, Spurlock said he didn’t know how a lawsuit would succeed.
“Lawsuit? I don’t think so,” Spurlock said. “I think as long as the state took those kids under the reasonable belief that there was some type of abuse or neglect going on, they don’t have a leg to stand on. Even in hindsight, as the Supreme Court said, you shouldn’t have taken all of the kids, that doesn’t mean there are grounds for a lawsuit unless you can prove they deliberately lied about the conditions on that ranch.”
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Taking a break?
FLDS lawyers will also have to navigate Texas’ sovereign immunity cap that limits damages against state agencies.
But Parker said lawyers could sue individually, most likely in federal court, to get around the cap.
One recent court ruling might support that position.
Last month, the 10th Court of Appeals in Waco ruled that Texas A&M administrators who are being sued individually in lawsuits over the 1999 bonfire collapse cannot claim governmental immunity. The court ruled that administrators were not immune to lawsuits even though they were acting in their official capacity in the accident that killed 12 and injured 27.
CPS staying away
Child Protective Services spokesman Patrick Crimmins said the agency has not tried to return to the YFZ Ranch since the children were returned to parents last week.
He wouldn’t say whether CPS intends to return.
“As the investigation continues, if we believe it is necessary, we will conduct interviews with the child and their parents just as we would in any other case where there are allegations of abuse and neglect,” Crimmins said. “Where those interviews might take place, I really couldn’t say.”
Both Crimmins and Parker said many of the parents and children have not returned to the ranch, and it is unclear when they will go back.
“I think it’s the desire of almost everyone to go back to the ranch,” Parker said. “At what point in time, I really don’t know. I think what you’re seeing is different legal advice by different lawyers as to what approach to take in dealing with CPS.”
Sect plans to stay
Parker said the sect will carry out its vow to register 300 voters in Schleicher County, where the ranch and Eldorado are.
“I think so,” Parker said. “I don’t think you will see people from the ranch running for office but I do think you will see them wanting to have a say in the elections, particularly in the sheriff’s race.”
He said it can be taken as a sign that the FLDS isn’t leaving Texas.
“They intend to stay,” Parker said. “It’s inappropriate, almost bigoted to suggest that a group should just go away. I really find that offensive.”
Last week, Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran told the Star-Telegram that the voter registration would be retaliation against him for his role in the April 3 raid.
Parker did nothing to dispel that notion, saying Doran “squandered the opportunity to have a better relationship” with sect leaders and was swayed by CPS allegations of abuse at the ranch. The attorney also challenged Doran’s assertion that there has been a change in leadership there.
“What you have to ask is, ‘How he is in a position to know?'” Parker said. “I would say that Sheriff Doran continues to rely on undisclosed sources that have no information about what is actually going on at the ranch.”
The Schleicher County election administrator’s office hasn’t recorded any new registrants in recent weeks, but if FLDS followers registered online it would take several months for the county to receive notification from the state, a spokesperson said.
Criminal probe continues
State officials say they are investigating possible criminal charges against the sect.
The Texas attorney general’s office, which is now the lead agency in the criminal case, wouldn’t speculate on when charges will be filed, spokesman Jerry Strickland said. Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Tela Mange also declined to say how close investigators were to filing charges.
Parker said he assumes charges will be filed.
“I’m expecting it because they say to expect it,” he said. “I don’t know of any particular evidence that a crime occurred. I think politically, they feel they need to come away from this with something.”