SAN ANGELO, Texas – Two men excommunicated by a polygamous sect went to a west Texas court Tuesday to offer themselves as guardians for their children if the state, which seized the children from a church-run ranch, deems their mothers unfit.
“If we can establish I’m not guilty of those things, why can’t I have my children?” asked Arthur Barlow, 59, who drove from southern Utah to seek custody of five of his children, who lived at the Yearning For Zion ranch in Eldorado.
Barlow and Frank Johnson, another father seeking custody of his children, were both excommunicated from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
It was not clear how many other relatives of the more than 460 children have asked to be considered alternatives to foster care. Child Protective Services typically looks for relatives in custody cases, and preference is usually given to noncustodial parents if they can demonstrate their home is safe.
Hearings for the children entered their second day in the five courtrooms of the Tom Green County courthouse. The hearings, designed to set up procedures for the parents to regain custody of their children, are expected to last three weeks.
The cases have been marked by confusion over identities and ages of children and parents. Most hearings have opened with judges asking parents to list their children and dates of birth.
Several mothers have been held in foster care for six weeks, only to be acknowledged as adults later. Child Protective Services said Tuesday that four more young mothers are adults; one is 27.
That acknowledgment, following earlier admissions, means the state has no more than 23 underage mothers in state custody, not 31, as officials initially said. More than 15 others may still be reclassified.
Barlow testified he was excommunicated four years ago and had never been to the YFZ ranch, where all the children were removed last month and placed in foster care facilities around the state after agency argued underage girls were being forced into marriages and sex.
Barlow said he entered into a spiritual marriage 15 years ago with Esther Jessop Barlow, now 35, whom he has known since childhood. He said that she is a fit mother, but that if the state rules otherwise, he wants custody of the children he hasn’t seen since he was forced from the church.
Barlow, who has 12 other children with another woman, said he didn’t fight for custody because he didn’t want the children used as “pawns.”
The children were removed en masse from the ranch during an April 3 raid that began after someone called a domestic abuse hot line claiming to be a pregnant abused teenage wife. Authorities are investigating whether the calls were a hoax.
The judges have not allowed much discussion of the validity of the decision to take the children, but they have focused on state-drafted “service plans” outlining how parents can get back their children. The parents have complained the plans are too vague.
Johnson moved from Utah to Abilene, Texas, to be closer to his six children, who haven’t lived with him for more than four years. He noted that accusations and required services are all directed at church members.
“How does the service plan fit my particular needs?” he asked in court.
Child welfare spokesman Patrick Crimmins said that his agency has asked the FLDS parents to name relatives who could take the children, but that all will have to be vetted before they could get custody.
FLDS spokesman Rod Parker said the 168 mothers in the case want their children but would consider relatives an acceptable alternative.
“Anything is more acceptable than foster care or non-relative adoption,” he said.
Parker also reiterated the church’s belief that the final number of underage mothers will 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.
“We’ve always known there are one or two or three examples out there,” Parker said. “What I’ve always denied is that there are (dozens) out there.”
In Austin on Tuesday, lawmakers began tallying the costs related to the raid and how to pay the $30 million the case is expected to cost over the next year.
The FLDS, which teaches that polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.
Associated Press writer April Castro in Austin contributed to this report.