SAN ANGELO, Texas – A court hearing to decide the fates of hundreds of children seized from a polygamist retreat was off to a chaotic start Thursday as hundreds of lawyers in two different locations demanded to study the first piece of evidence before it could be introduced.
State District Judge Barbara Walther called a recess 40 minutes after the hearing began in what could be the nation’s largest child custody case. She wanted to allow the 350 lawyers spread out in two buildings to read the evidence and decide whether to object en masse or make individual objections.
The hearing resumed about an hour later.
The lawyers are representing the 416 children and dozens of parents from the Yearning For Zion ranch owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a renegade Mormon sect accused of forcing underage girls into polygamous marriages.
The 80-year-old Tom Green County courtroom and a satellite courtroom set up in a City Hall auditorium two blocks away were jammed with dozens of mothers from the retreat, dressed in their iconic pastel prairie dresses and braided upswept hair.
In the satellite courtroom, about 175 people strained to see and hear a large projector set up on the auditorium’s stage, which offered a grainy live feed of the proceedings with barely audible sound.
“I’m not in a position to advocate for anything,” complained Susan Hays, the appointed attorney for a 2-year-old sect member.
The mothers in the primary courtroom were sworn in as witnesses, standing and mumbling their ‘I do’s’ in timid voices. As they sat silently, the flock of lawyers buzzed with murmurs and popped up to make motions or object as Walther tried to maintain order.
But when prosecutors tried to enter into evidence the medical records of three girls _ two 17-year-olds and an 18-year-old _ the lawyers jumped to their feet and crammed the aisles trying to see the papers. That’s when Walther called the recess.
Outside, where satellite trucks lined the street in front of the courthouse’s columned facade, a man who said he was an FLDS father waved a photo of himself surrounded by his four children, ranging in age from an infant to about 9.
“Look, look, look,” the father said. “These children are all smiling, we’re happy.”
Walther signed an emergency order nearly two weeks ago giving the state custody of the children after a 16-year-old girl called an abuse hot line claiming her husband, a 50-year-old member of the sect, beat and raped her. The girl has yet to be identified.
Authorities raided the Eldorado ranch and spent a week collecting documents and disk drives that might provide evidence of underage girls being married to adults.
The children, first taken to local shelters, were later moved to a historic fort and then to a domed coliseum on the fairgrounds in San Angelo. All but 27 adolescent boys are staying in the coliseum and a nearby building; the teenage boys are at a boys ranch near Amarillo.
If the judge gives the state permanent custody of the children, the child services agency will begin looking for foster homes in a case that has already stretched the legal resources of San Angelo and the state’s child welfare system.
The custody case is one of the largest in U.S. history and involves children from 6 months to 17 years in age. Roughly 100 of the children are under age 4.
State officials contend the children were being physically and sexually abused or were in imminent danger of such abuse.
FLDS members say the state is persecuting them for their faith and that their 1,700-acre Yearning for Zion Ranch, with its soaring white temple and log cabin-style houses, is simply a home isolated from a hostile and sinful world.
They deny children were abused.
“It’s the furthest thing away from what we do here,” said Dan, a sect member who spoke at the compound Wednesday but declined to give his last name because he fears how it will affect his children in state custody. “There’s nothing that’s more disliked and more trained against.”
A major issue will be how a home is defined _ whether by the individual house each child lived in or by the larger ranch, Hays said. Under Texas law, if sexual abuse is occurring in a home and a parent does not stop it, then the parent can lose custodial rights.
The judge also must decide whether it’s in the best interest of children who have lived insulated lives to be suddenly placed into mainstream society, Hays said.
Typically, each child would be given a separate hearing, but given the number of cases, it’s likely the judge will have the state, the children’s attorneys and the parents’ attorneys make consolidated presentations, at least initially, said Harper Estes, president-elect of the state bar.
If the judge gives the state permanent custody, it will have an enormous challenge in finding homes for the children.
The agency has relied on volunteers to help feed the children, launder linens and provide crafts and games for them in a dorm-style setting for the past two weeks. But the agency will have to find stable homes and try to decipher sibling relationships that should be preserved if it gets permanent custody.
Even identifying groups of siblings has been challenging so far.
“There’s quite a lot of difficulty in identifying how many of these children are biologically related to one another. There’s a large number who are half-siblings,” Gonzales said.
The children, who dress in pioneer-style clothes meant to emphasize modesty, have been raised in the insular FLDS community.
The sect came to West Texas in 2003, relocating some members from the church’s traditional home along the Utah-Arizona state line. It traces its religious roots to the early theology of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which now denounces polygamy and excommunicates members found practicing it.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Dobner in Eldorado, Texas, contributed to this report.