SAN ANGELO, Texas — Children from a polygamist sect were the only subjects on the docket Monday at a west Texas courthouse where five judges began handling hundreds of hearings.
State child-welfare officials gave the parents of each of the more than 460 children in state custody the same template plan to follow, and judges made few changes. Attorneys for the children’s parents decried the judges for their cookie-cutter approach. Parents remained without answers to important questions, including whether a requirement that the children live in a “safe” environment means they can’t return to the Yearning for Zion Ranch.
Donna Guion, an attorney for the mother of a 6-year-old son of the sect’s jailed prophet, Warren Jeffs, complained that the plans were so vague they would be impossible to satisfy and were contingent on psychological evaluations likely to take weeks to complete.
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“This plan is so vague and so broad that my client has no idea what she can do now,” Guion said of the boy’s mother.
Dozens of mothers in prairie dresses and fathers in button-down shirts arrived at the Tom Green County courthouse, flanked by pro bono lawyers from the state’s most prestigious firms as well as Legal Aid.
“What the parents are trying to find out here is what they need to do to get their children back, and there’s no clear answer to that,” said Rod Parker, spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which runs the ranch in Eldorado.
The hearings in nearby San Angelo are scheduled to run for the next three weeks, and none of the judges would humor any discussion about whether the initial grounds for removing the children in a raid of the ranch last month were valid. It probably will be months before the cases are reviewed again in court.
Texas child-welfare authorities argued that all the children, ranging from newborns to teenagers, should be removed from the ranch because the sect pushes underage girls into marriage and sex and encourages boys to become future perpetrators.
Church members insist there was no abuse.
All the plans given to parents call for parenting classes, vocational training for the parents and require the parents to prove they can support their children. They also call for safe living environments, though they offer no specifics.The plan does not require parents to renounce polygamy or guarantee that their daughters won’t be married before the age of consent, which in Texas is 17.