Polygamist Sect Custody Hearings on Hold as Parents Await Court Decision

Texas officials say they have additional evidence of abuse among the hundreds of children who were taken into state custody last month from a polygamist sect’s West Texas ranch.

Some of that evidence, including testimony from an alleged child bride shown in photographs kissing PDF file sect leader Warren Jeffs, was to be presented Tuesday at a custody hearing for the child of one of the sect mothers.

But before any of the evidence, which state officials would not describe, was entered into evidence, the state and sect lawyers resolved the case, agreeing that Child Protective Services will maintain custody of Louisa Bradshaw’s baby, who was born in state custody.

Bradshaw was initially taken into custody because officials thought she was a minor, although they have since said that she is older than 18. She will be allowed to stay with her baby in a shelter.

Photographs showing Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs kissing a girl, who Texas state officials have said was 12 at the time she entered into a spiritual marriage with Jeffs, were introduced as evidence in Bradshaw’s case last week. The photographs, dated 2006, say “one year anniversary.”

Child Protective Services has said Bradshaw and her husband lived in the same building as the girl, on the Yearning for Zion Ranch. Patrick Crimmons, a CPS spokesman, said the girl in photo the is in Child Protective Services custody.

Rod Parker, an attorney and spokesman for the church, said the photos were “just a publicity stunt by CPS because they feel their case caving in around them.”

Last week, an appellate court ordered the release of hundreds of sect children, saying the state had not presented enough evidence that they were in immediate danger of abuse to justify keeping them in state custody.

The state has appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. If upheld, the ruling would unravel the largest child welfare case in U.S. history.

The state said in court papers filed last week that it feared that sect members would flee the state if the children were returned.

Parker said Bradshaw and her husband lived in an apartment that was separate from the girl in the photo.

But the photos could have implications larger than one child-custody case.

“I’m sure law enforcement in several states will take a look to see what more can be done,” said Paul Murphy, a spokesman for the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

Lisa Wayne, a former sex crimes prosecutor, said prosecutors would need more evidence of sexual abuse beyond the photos in order to bring charges against Jeffs.

Jeffs is in prison on a separate charge of coercing a 14-year-old to marry her adult cousin. His criminal lawyer was not immediately available for comment.

Investigators will have to see if there is evidence that the girls in the photos have been abused, and, if so, where the abuse occurred before any charges could be filed, Murphy said.

“Everyone who saw those photos did a complete gasp,” he said. “I think they’re shocking.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday May 29, 2008.
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