SAN ANGELO — Seeking testimony about underage marriage, Child Protective Services was preparing to question at least eight girls seized from a polygamist sect’s West Texas ranch, but a last-minute agreement in a custody hearing Tuesday kept them off the witness stand.
“It is highly unusual to have victims testify, and we only choose to do it in cases that are crucial to proving that abuse occurred,” said CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins.
Crimmins said the agreement achieved the state’s most narrow objective — keeping a newborn in state care — though the agency may not get a similar future chance to admit the testimony.
“I don’t know if there’s another (civil) proceeding at which it would come to light,” Crimmins said.
Attorneys for members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints said the state transferred at least eight girls in state foster care to San Angelo over the weekend.
Lawyers for the state had indicated they would testify about being “spiritually” married as minors to older men at the Yearning for Zion Ranch outside Eldorado. They sought the testimony in a case involving an infant born two weeks ago to Dan and Louisa Jessop, a couple in a monogamous marriage who lived on the ranch until authorities raided it on April 3.
CPS officials contend that at least one of the girls summoned to testify was “spiritually” married when she was 11 to the sect’s “prophet,” Warren Jeffs, was related to Dan Jessop and lived for a time in the same building as the Jessop couple. The girl is now 13.
Jeffs received a life sentence in Utah last year for arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl.
The agreement reached Tuesday keeps the newborn boy in state protective custody, but allows the mother, Louisa Bradshaw Jessop, 22, the right to stay with him and her two older children, who also are in state care. Most mothers from the YFZ ranch can stay only with their newborns.
Rod Parker, an attorney and spokesman for the breakaway Mormon sect, said his clients’ only goal Tuesday was reuniting parents with their children, not preventing damaging testimony.
Also Tuesday, Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, reiterated that his office “is not involved at all” in the civil proceedings. But he later acknowledged that attorneys for his agency “have been in communication” with CPS attorneys but are not calling the shots.
Last week, a Texas appeals court ruled that a San Angelo judge did not have enough evidence to order the more than 400 children on the ranch into temporary state custody. The state has appealed the decision to the Texas Supreme Court, which is reviewing it.
Fear of flight
In a legal brief filed Tuesday, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services argued that the mothers of 124 children affected by the ruling would be likely to flee the state and take refuge in the sect’s home turf on the Utah-Arizona border.
The agency’s lawyers also argued that without the children, due to the “conspiracy of silence and obfuscation of the alleged mothers,” state authorities would be “unable to identify and remove the sexual predators who impregnated numerous underage children at the YFZ Ranch.”
They also said last Thursday’s decision by the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin would affect the 300 remaining children, who would be ”at risk of continuing sexual and emotional abuse.”
Lawyers for the group of 36 mothers who won at the 3rd Court said the children should be returned while the high court weighed the appeal.
Janet Elliott in Austin contributed to this report.