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Hearing to decide the fates of 416 FLDS children moving slowly

Hearing to decide the fates of 416 FLDS children moving slowly


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(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

John Hollenhorst and AP reporting

The battle for custody of 416 children taken in a raid on an FLDS compound in Texas continues Friday, in what's being described as chaos in the courtroom.

The custody hearing stretched late into Thursday night and will go on at least another day, with hundreds of lawyers and parents in attendance.

At issue: Will 416 FLDS children be allowed to go home to their families? Dozens of FLDS mothers, scores of reporters and more than 400 lawyers converged on the hearing in San Angelo, Texas, Thursday.

Several polygamist families from the FLDS Church were also at the hearing. Texas officials are trying to separate the children from those families, because they say the children are at risk of physical and sexual abused. FLDS leaders deny that.

A welfare worker testified Thursday night that numerous girls at the polygamist ranch may have had children when they were 13 years old.

Late Thursday, the judge had finished going through just two of the hundreds of cases. The children did not attend the hearing, rather they stayed where they are living, at the San Angelo Coliseum.

With more than 400 lawyers involved, it's no surprise this extraordinary hearing was a bit slow on takeoff. Every time a new piece of evidence came up, many lawyers would stand up and object. The hearing disintegrated quickly into a barrage of shouted objections and attempts to file motions, with lawyers for the children objecting to objections made by the parents' attorneys. When the judge sustained an objection to the prolonged questioning of the state trooper, the lawyers cheered.

Upon another objection about the proper admission of medical records of the children, the judge threw up her hands. "I assume most of you want to make the same objection. Can I have a universal, `Yes, Judge'?" she said. In both buildings, the hundreds of lawyers stood and responded in unison: "Yes, Judge."

Little evidence had been admitted by mid-afternoon. The first attempt to admit evidence resulted in an hour-long recess while all the lawyers examined it. The rest of Thursday morning was spent in arguments about whether to admit the medical records of three girls, two 17-year-olds and one 18-year-old.

Judge Barbara Walthers is known for running a tight ship, but the repeated objections from lawyers slowed things down. David Samuel Brown, and FLDS Child's Attorney Ad Litem, said, "I think under the circumstances she's doing a real good job. It's taken longer than I expected, but that's just how it goes."

A few FLDS wives and mothers attended the hearing, but they were easily outnumbered by lawyers. Each of the 416 kids is represented by an attorney, one of whom noted the complexity of the case, considering the kids are of both genders and all ages. Susan Hays, child's attorney ad litem, said, "I think it's difficult because of what age, it's balancing the removal of a 2-year-old from her mother with, at what point is it damaging to that child to be taught her job is to have sex with men as soon as she menstruates? And I don't know if that's true or not. We don't know what the evidence is."

She also said one of the most interesting legal questions is: What is a home? Hays said, "Under Texas law, if sex abuse happening in the home, and a parent does not protect that child, then the child can be removed from that parent, as well as the abuser. So what is a home here? Is it an entire ranch? Is it an entire community? Is it a physical building? Or is it that individual family's home?"

Most of the lawyers are working for free. Lawyer Tom Vick said, "The lawyers in this state were absolutely not going to let these children down."

State officials acknowledged enormous difficulty identifying children and matching kids with parents because of the secretive FLDS people sometimes giving untruthful answers. The state of Texas asked Texas District Judge Barbara Walther to approve genetic testing on the children to establish parenthood, but she hasn't made a ruling on that yet.

They revealed that when they searched the FLDS ranch, they found a year-old document listing husbands and multiple wives. Some were as young as 16. A state official testified there were many pregnant teenagers.

Rod Parker, a Utah Attorney for FLDS group said, "What the state is trying to do here is to tar all the families with the problems, or the alleged problems of a few families. Every family needs to be considered individually. This is not fair to those families who don't have issues."

Many FLDS parents have only photos to keep their spirits up. One mother summed it up, saying, "We would just love to get our children back."

If the judge decides to give Texas permanent custody of the children, suitable homes would need to be found for them, and officials would have to try to decide which of the children are siblings.

Among those in attendance were some FLDS men, including Willie Jessop of Utah who used to be Warren Jeffs' bodyguard. When a reporter asked Jessop what his role was, Jessop replied, "No comment." The reporter then said, "The authorities in there have evidence in there they say of young girls being married at an early age. True or false?" Jessop answered, "Let's see what all the evidence is. Thank you."

Meanwhile, there's a report of an arrest in Colorado that may have something to do with the raid in Texas and, just possibly, with the phone calls that triggered the raid.

Authorities in Colorado Springs announced the arrest of Rozita Swinton on charges of false reporting to authorities. The press release notes that Texas Rangers were in Colorado Springs as part of the FLDS investigation. There's no further explanation from authorities.

But a well-known anti-polygamy crusader claims that Swinton called her numerous times in the last two weeks. Flora Jessop believes Swinton was the one who called Texas authorities, pretending to be trapped in the FLDS compound.

Jessop said, "She continued to call and claim that, ‘Oh, I've been moved now to another compound.' And that she was claiming that her sister had called out of the Texas shelters."

Texas Rangers declined to arrest her; she was arrested only by Colorado authorities. So, her connection to the Texas case, if there is one, remains unknown.

E-mail: hollenhorst@ksl.com

(The Associated Press contributed to this story. Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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