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Children will stay in state custody for now

FLDS women walk out of the Tom Green County Court House after Judge Barbara Walther made the ruling for the state to keep custody of 416 children taken from Yearning for Zion Ranch.
FLDS women walk out of the Tom Green County Court House after Judge Barbara Walther made the ruling for the state to keep custody of 416 children taken from Yearning for Zion Ranch.
Tim Hussin, Deseret News

SAN ANGELO, Texas — A Texas judge ruled Friday evening that all of the 416 children taken from the YFZ Ranch will remain in temporary state custody.

The ruling followed a marathon two-day hearing that included hundreds of lawyers.

Following the ruling, the sadness in the eyes of the children's mothers spoke volumes about their disappointment.

"It's awful," said one mother leaving the courtroom. "Why don't people stand up and say something about this?"

Another mother, echoing that sentiment, said, "This is ridiculous."

Rod Parker, an attorney who is serving as the FLDS spokesman, said that he could not believe that the children would continue to be held.

"There is no way that the state's theory that children would be indoctrinated satisfies the statutory standard of an imminent and urgent danger," he said. "I don't think an infant is going to be indoctrinated within the next 60 days," when another hearing will be held.

Even if the state had questions about some of the children, such as teenage girls, he questioned why others could not return home.

"You can't point to a single male who has ever been sexually abused," he said. "Why don't they let them go home?"

He also disputed the state's argument that they were not pursuing the case on religious grounds.

"This is all about religion. No thinking person could believe CPS's assertion that it is not about religion," he said. "The evidence they presented about doctrine, beliefs and lifestyle" demonstrate that it is their main focus.

During earlier testimony Friday, a 29-year-old polygamist mother testified today that she would be willing to do anything the court required if she could regain custody of her 7-year-old daughter.

Merilyn Jeffs told the court she would be willing to leave the YFZ Ranch and is capable of supporting herself, if that is what it takes to be reunited with Marva. Under questioning by her attorney, Merilyn Jeffs, who was born in Utah, said she would never allow her daughter to be married until she reached the age of 18.

For herself, she did not marry until age 20 and was "absolutely not" coerced into the union.

Under cross-examination by the state's attorney, Merilyn Jeffs' answers became measured and slow, and were given with some reluctance. Although she testified that she has a 19-year-old sister who is married, she said she didn't know when the marriage took place.

When the attorney asked if she knew how her sister was married, she replied, "After it's done, they come and we congratulate them."

When asked the age of her sister's baby, she said, "I estimate two." She also said she has another married sister who "I believe she is 18."

It is the ambiguity of facts like these that has state child welfare officials concerned regarding the monumental task of sifting through information about FLDS families to determine when or if it is appropriate to be reunited.

On Thursday, a state child protection supervisor testified that inadequate record keeping, inconsistent answers and at times refusal to answer simple, biographical questions has led to roadblocks in the agencies ability to determine familial relationships.

During earlier testimony today, Susan Richardson, an attorney representing one of the children seized in the raid, said FLDS leader Warren Jeffs may be called to testify because he fathered her client.

Richardson today began questioning religion expert Robert Walsh about the personal and religious views of Jeffs when it comes to unions of underage girls to older men.

The attorney asked if Jeffs' personal practices of uniting young girls with adult men differed from the traditional habits of the Fundamentalist LDS Church.

When another defense attorney objected to the relevancy, saying Jeffs was in prison, Richardson countered, saying it was relevant because "he is the father of a child I represent."

The judge then interjected, asking if that meant that Jeffs needed to be served with court papers because it may mean he could be a party to the case. Richardson said yes.

The religion expert, who has extensively studied FLDS sects and the LDS Church, testified that Jeffs is "somewhat indifferent" to the age of women as to when they marry. Instead, Jeffs relies on "when they have reached adult status in the community."

That can be as young as when they reach their menstrual cycle.

Jeffs was convicted last year of rape in Utah as an accomplice for performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.

He was sentenced in November to serve two terms of 15 years to life in prison. He is currently being held in Kingman, Ariz., for trial in a similar case.

Also on Friday, a leading child trauma psychologist for Texas testified that the situation with 416 FLDS children who have been taken into state custody is a "lose-lose situation."

Bruce Perry, senior fellow at the ChildTrauma Academy, an organization that works in cooperation with a multitude of state government agencies to counsel traumatized children, was one of the state's chief witnesses today in the custody hearing for the children seized during the raid.

Perry said that if the children who were on the YFZ Ranch were kept in custody there would have to be "exceptional and innovative programmic elements in place."

Perry also said the FLDS children should remain in custody because they are either victims of sexual assault, potential victims of sexual assault or potential perpetrators.

But under cross-examination, Perry conceded that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. In fact, Perry admitted that "the traditional foster care system would be destructive to these kids."

He also said that the state child-welfare agency needs some time to further investigate the various situations of all the families involved.

"The children and families need to get to be known for their individual strengths and vulnerabilities ... They need an environment that is respectful and loving but is open and allows them to make their own choices."

When asked which option would be best for the children — a return to the ranch, placement in the foster system or remaining in the coliseum where they are now — he said none were acceptable.

He said to return to the ranch would be detrimental, even for the young boys because it is a "special place, it reinforces their beliefs."

While admitting that the young boys are not at immediate risk for physical abuse he said they would be subject to emotional and psychological harm

Overall, he said, the least vulnerable of the group are the young babies.

Defense attorneys hired by some of the parents of children taken into custody also on Friday cross-examined a child protective services supervisor.

The legal proceedings featured questions by one attorney that hinted some of the mothers would be willing to follow whatever court order necessary to regain custody of their children.

"One of your concerns is that they have a mindset. What do they have to do to prove they are amenable to counseling services?" said an attorney questioning Angie Voss, the supervisor.

What if, the attorney went on, her clients were willing to get an apartment, obtain a restraining order against the FLDS husbands or fathers, and would only allow the men to have supervised visitation?

Voss did not directly answer the question, but said, "This population of women have a difficult time making decisions on their own."

The line of questioning indicates that some of the women want to know if the department is willing to put forth a "safety plan."

Such plans are mediated efforts between child protective service agencies and parents who are accused of abuse, neglect or abandonment. Safety plans allow children to remain in the custody of their parents while they receive services that are designed to make reunification a safe and healthy situation.

One attorney, who said she represents several girls ages 5 to 11, said that it is frustrating that the state Child Protective Services wants to delay reuniting the families while they work out a plan to ensure the safety of the children.

"Everyone keeps saying they need more time, more time. In the meantime our little girls are suffering," the attorney said.

Defense attorneys hired by the parents continued to launch a series of objections in today's hearing.

"The department is taking a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to all these parents when they are individuals and individual families," one attorney said. "Based on global allegations," the agency took away more than 400 children from their families.

He wondered how the department could justify that.

Voss said that more than 20 girls have been identified who have conceived or given birth at the age of 16, and "there is a culture of young girls being pregnant by older men."

Another attorney called into question Voss' ability to somehow look at a young woman and ascertain her age. Voss on Thursday had testified that many of the young women in state custody gave officials ages that they didn't suspect were true.

"She (Voss) did not provide any testimony as to her expertise to her experience at being able to do this," said attorney Mary Lou Alvarez. "And yet she could magically tell that they were under 18."

The 51st District Judge, Barbara Walther, later excused Voss from the stand, and while saying she had heard enough testimony from the state's witness, told the supervisor she must remain in the courtroom for possible further questioning.