SAN ANGELO — When Kathryn and Seth Jeffs visit their seven children, there is one name they are not allowed to mention: Warren Jeffs.
State Child Protective Services officials say that forbidding discussion about the convicted sex offender and jailed leader of a polygamous sect is a way to protect the more than 450 children from the sect who have been scattered around the state in foster care since the state removed them from a ranch near the West Texas town of Eldorado last month.
But for Melanie, Matthew, Suzion, Generous, David, Samuel and Jeremiah Jeffs, the jailed prophet isn’t just a religious leader. He’s their uncle. Their father is Warren Jeffs’ younger brother.
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CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said there’s no policy that foster children should not talk about relatives who are sex offenders, but “if he is their prophet and spiritual leader and someone to be emulated, that’s our concern.”
Rod Parker, a spokesman for the families from Yearning for Zion Ranch, called the policy blatant censorship.
“It’s not very pleasing,” Seth Jeffs said of the ban on mentioning his brother. “But we’re ready to do whatever it takes to get our children back.”
How to reunite families from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints continued to be the focus of a second day of hearings in five courtrooms at the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo. The proceedings are expected to continue through early June.
Kathryn Jeffs, 36, sat in court beside her husband, 35. Both wore light blue: she a puffed-sleeve dress, he a button-down shirt.
In a scene repeated in many hearings, state District Judge Barbara Walther ordered the Jeffses to follow a CPS-drafted plan for all families that requires them to take parenting classes and submit to psychological testing, among other things. Despite arguments by Seth Jeffs’ lawyer that the plan suppresses the family’s religious beliefs, Walther made no changes.
The plan does not mention Warren Jeffs. But Crimmins said that if children arrived in foster care with Warren Jeffs’ photo or written teachings inserted into the Book of Mormon, the items were removed.
In a conversation with Walther about whether Seth Jeffs was being persecuted religiously, Jeffs’ lawyer, Carl Kolb, said his client is not allowed to mention Warren Jeffs by name.
CPS lawyer Ellen Griffiths responded: “Protecting these children from a sex offender is something the department feels is necessary to do.”
Agency officials say they removed the children from the ranch after an investigation revealed a pattern of underage girls entering spiritual marriages with much older men.
When asked how many wives Seth Jeffs has, Kolb replied five. Later, Kolb called the other women “partners.”
Warren Jeffs was convicted in Utah last year in connection with an arranged marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin. He is awaiting trial in Arizona on charges of being an accomplice to incest and sex with minors.
Seth Jeffs was sentenced in 2006 to three years of probation for harboring and aiding his fugitive brother.
Kolb said CPS is essentially arguing that mentioning Jeffs’ name is equivalent to child abuse.
“That’s a pretty big stretch,” he said.
Attorneys for Kathryn and Seth Jeffs repeatedly questioned CPS caseworker Joni Manske about the couple’s parenting skills. Did she have any reason to suspect they had abused the children? Or that they had neglected the children?
“Not at this time,” Manske said several times. “The investigation is ongoing.”
Kolb said that leaves only one concern CPS could have: “We think this is very much about suspicion of their religious beliefs.”
But Griffiths said religious beliefs “are not an issue here.” The judge agreed.
Kathryn Jeffs’ lawyer, Nancy DeLong, argued that the state should place the children together. They range in age from 1 to 12.
DeLong said Kathryn Jeffs has been practically living in her car as she visits them in Amarillo, Abilene, San Antonio and Liverpool, near Houston. It’s a 10-hour drive from Amarillo to Liverpool.
Manske acknowledged that “could be a challenge. We will work through it.”
CPS officials said that they are trying to place siblings together but that it’s been difficult because sect members have given conflicting statements about who their children are.
However, Manske testified that Kathryn Jeffs has consistently identified her seven children.
Manske testified that two of the Jeffs’ children have been hospitalized since they’ve been in the state’s care. On one occasion, Kathryn Jeffs was allowed supervised visits. But when Suzion, 3, was hospitalized briefly over the weekend for fever because of chicken pox, her mother wasn’t allowed to visit, DeLong said.
Also on Tuesday, two men excommunicated by the sect went to court to offer themselves as guardians for their children, if the state deems their custodial parents unfit.
“If we can establish I’m not guilty of those things, why can’t I have my children?” said Arthur Barlow, 59, who drove from southern Utah to seek custody of five of his children, who lived at the ranch.
Barlow and Frank Johnson, another father seeking custody of his children, were excommunicated from the FLDS church.
Crimmins said that his agency has asked the parents from the Eldorado ranch to name relatives who could take the children but that all would have to be vetted before they could get custody.
When the hearings resumed Tuesday, the welfare agency acknowledged that another three young mothers are actually 18 or older. That acknowledgment, after earlier admissions about four other young mothers, means the state has no more than 24 underage mothers in state custody, not 31, as officials initially said. About 20 others may still be reclassified.
Parker said the final number of underage mothers will likely be closer to five or six, though he acknowledged that some of the young mothers apparently were pregnant while younger than 17 — Texas’ age of consent.
Additional material from The Associated Press.
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