In San Angelo This Morning, a Quest to Discern the Difference Between Prosecution and Persecution

The Yearning for Zion Ranch just outside Eldorado

In San Angelo this morning, under cloudy skies, dozens of polygamist parents are filing into court to argue for custody of their children. At the center of the storm is 51st District Judge Barbara Walther, who is presiding over the largest child custody case in U.S. history. The decisions she makes beginning today will not only define her career; they will say a lot about what the rule of law means in the state of Texas.

Walther, 55, has been described as "fair but bare fisted." Earlier this week she told attorneys representing the children that she plans to handle each case "on an individual basis, family by family, parent by parent." That she had to say this at all explains everything that is wrong with the case involving the government's raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch outside Eldorado two weeks ago.

“As long as they continue to look at them en masse, and judge a society, a culture and a religion, it’s hard to believe they will be dealt with fairly,” attorney Jim Bradshaw, who is representing some of the families, told The New York Times in a story out this morning. “So the attempt is going to be to individually examine each of the families -- I am very confident if that happens the children will all be returned.”

More than 300 attorneys from around the state have gone to San Angelo to represent the children in the case, including the Innocence Project, which has been instrumental in overturning wrongful convictions in Dallas County through DNA evidence.

"This is a classic case of government overreaching," Jeff Blackburn, lead counsel for the Innocence Project for Texas, told the Salt Lake Tribune. "The amount of human and emotional damage [from those warrants] is way out of proportion to what the court said it was trying to accomplish."

Texas Department of Family and Protective Services spokesman Darrell Azar has said the state has evidence that "some" children have been sexually abused and that "all would be at risk if we returned them to the compound at this time." He says the state wants to keep the children in temporary custody for the time being.

As The New York Times noted this morning, that will put a tremendous strain on a state child welfare system that is already stretched thin. From The Times:

Experts in child welfare said the burden of having to detach about 500 state workers to deal with the Eldorado cases was already rippling through a system whose caseload is among the nation’s highest and per-child spending levels among its lowest.

“Right this minute, the kids in San Angelo are getting the very best that the state has to offer in terms of attention and energy,” said Scott McCown, director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a research group in Austin that focuses on low-income families. “But in the long run, it is going to be difficult to serve those children, and in the short run, those services come at the cost of children in places like Dallas and Houston.”

A 2004 study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research group, ranked Texas 47th in the nation in child welfare spending, measured against its population. Spending increases by the Legislature in 2005 and 2007 have helped, Mr. McCown and several other experts said, but not enough rebuild an overextended system.

It is plausible, even likely, that the state has gathered evidence substantiating their claims of sexual abuse at the Eldorado compound. But to date, the only known evidence to justify the removal of 416 children from the custody of their parents is an unsubstantiated phone call from a girl that has yet to be located and a bed.

Bible Girl took on the bed in a post earlier this week, calling it a place where "dirty old men get their freak on with underage virgins." Perhaps this is true. But a bed in a church is not evidence of sexual abuse any more than a bed in a bedroom is. If I am wrong, then every church in America with a caretaker's quarters or a room for a priest has reason for alarm. Here's hoping the state has more to go on. --Jesse Hyde

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky