They came in twos and threes up the stone steps of the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo this week: rail-thin women in stiff cotton prairie dresses, their chins tucked low, their faces unadorned with makeup, their hair pulled back in tight braids and buns. They were the women of the Yearning for Zion Ranch, and they had come to lay claim to their children in the largest child custody case in U.S. history.
On Monday in Courtroom D, on the first floor of the courthouse, a woman named Sarah Steed was asked to name her children in order. There was Shirley and Jeremiah and Kimberly and Kaylynn and David and Juliana, she said, six in all, ranging in age from 7 months to 10 years old. They were spread out across the state, from San Antonio to Waxahachie, and ever since her children had been taken from her, Steed had spent a good deal of her time on the road paying each of them weekly visits. Her 3-year-old son, who had been placed in a facility away from his siblings and his mother, had been sick several times and was crying himself to sleep every night, according to the attorney representing him.
Similar scenes were played out in front of five different judges at the county courthouse in San Angelo on Monday and Tuesday this week. They're expected to continue until June 4 as the state conducts mandatory 60-day status hearings related to the April 3 raid of the YFZ polygamist compound in nearby Eldorado and the subsequent seizure of more than 450 children affiliated with the breakaway Mormon sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS.
The hearings are intended to establish what parents must do to regain custody of their children. The state's goal, according to CPS spokeswoman Melissa Gonzales, is to reunite FLDS parents and children, possibly within a year, provided the parents complete a set of tasks and requirements contained in what CPS calls service plans.
"The purpose of the hearings today is just to kind of put them out there so that a judge can look at the plans and decide whether they are appropriate," Gonzales said.
But attorneys representing FLDS parents say the plans are too general and vague to accomplish much of anything, meaning there is little chance for reunification within a year.
"This is a cookie-cutter plan, a generic plan," said Dallas attorney Mark Ticer, who is representing three of Sarah Steed's children. "We would rather see something specific and realistic."
Ticer asked Alison Albrecht, a CPS caseworker assigned to the Steed case, if she had seen Steed interact with her children. Albrecht said she had and that neither she nor any of the other caseworkers assigned to the family had any concerns about Steed's parenting skills.
"Then why do you have parenting skills in this plan when there's no concern about parenting skills?" Ticer asked.
Albrecht said that one plan had been drafted for every family living on the YFZ Ranch and that neither Steed nor her children had been consulted prior to formulating the plan.
"Tell the court what evidence there is for this family that abuse or neglect occurred," Ticer asked Albrecht.
Albrecht said she had none and agreed that typical CPS protocol calls for gathering evidence first and then tailoring service plans to specific allegations of abuse and neglect.
"These children don't show any signs of neglect or abuse," Ticer said. "What it amounts to, judge, is they live at the wrong address."
The service plans require that parents complete counseling and psychological evaluations, as well as parenting classes and educational assessments.
"As time goes on we're certainly open to meeting with the parents and their representation and with the children's attorneys to talk about which goals may not be necessarily appropriate for that client," Gonzales said. "Maybe things can be dropped. Maybe things can be added. Whatever is going to be the most effective for that family, that is what we are going to want to include."
The plans also require parents to document their marriages, children's birth, living arrangements and to become financially self-sufficient through vocational training or education by next April.
"The state's response is that '[The FLDS] are not coming to us claiming to be individual nuclear families of two or three or five. They're claiming basically to be one big family. They started this,' is Texas' counter to this, and there is some truth to that," said Martin Guggenheim, child welfare and constitutional law expert at New York University.
"My understanding of the plans is that they may have to be willing to separate from the larger community and become more of a nuclear family, and maybe even be willing to live outside of the compound," Guggenheim said.
"As I understand it, one of the goals is not to punish the parents, but to liberate them from this community and conditions, in which other women have said it is very difficult to leave."
CPS caseworkers testified Monday and Tuesday that the service plans approved this week are merely a starting point and that between now and November they will work closely with parents and children to tailor more specific plans. Until the last several weeks, CPS officials said, in many cases they did not know which children belonged to which parents, as members of the breakaway Mormon sect would not cooperate in giving investigators information.
That has changed as law enforcement has uncovered more evidence—including confidential clergy records—that reveals the sprawling, interconnected family tree that unites the FLDS communities in Eldorado and Colorado City, Arizona. Those records, while incomplete, provide an unprecedented look into the secretive community. While the records do show a pervasive practice of polygamy among sect members, they do not reveal a pattern of large-scale systematic abuse of minors that the state has alleged occurred at the YFZ Ranch before the raid.
Almost all plural wives listed, for example, are older than 18. The youngest wife listed on the records is 16. There were also several monogamous couples living on the ranch.
Intern Daniel Rodrigue contributed to this story.
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