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(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Fierce criticism today as the state of Texas launched a marathon series of hearings on the status of 464 FLDS children taken into state custody.
As three weeks of hearings began in five courtrooms, it became clear that Texas officials have developed a mechanism to reunite the families. But it's a tough pill to swallow for some of the mothers.
The hearings are to review the status of each child. We sat in on a hearing for one of Warren Jeffs' sons. But the judge is also reviewing written conditions for reuniting families. Depending on your point of view, it's a formula to end abuse or an assault on religious freedom.
If they want their children back, the mothers who flocked to the courthouse may have to stop marching to Warren Jeffs' tune.
The blunt instrument of Texas law is a document called a family service plan. Guy Choate, Texas State Bar spokesman, says, "The family service plan is just the state's effort to get these families back together in what the state believes will be not an abusive situation."
A 6-year-old son of Warren Jeffs was one of the first children to go through a custody hearing today. The judge approved a compliance plan for 6-year-old Samuel and his mother to be reunited. But the mother's attorney and FLDS spokesman Rod Parker doesn't like the plans because they lump families together. Parker said, "To contend that every child in the community is at risk, every male child, every baby, every girl, is just unfair. That's treating everybody with a broad brush."
A caseworker testified the boy did not suffer physical or sexual abuse while living in Texas. The child does have a prosthetic leg because of a birth defect.
Bob Scherrer, an attorney for a 5-year-old, said, "It's ridiculous. I mean the human rights and civil rights denials in this case. They're just atrocious. I've never seen anything like this in 20 years of practice, and I hope never to see it again."
Kids are being tested for entry into public schools considered evil by Warren Jeffs. The mothers must get psychological evaluations, counseling, vocational training and jobs. The goal seems to be to push them into independence. Choate says, "They're going to have to live in a non-abusive environment. They're going to have to say who the daddies are."
The implication is they may not be able to live at the YFZ ranch. "The court has already made the decision that the children were in an abusive environment," Choate says.
Parker said, "I understand some parents have obtained apartments outside the ranch to try and comply with that condition. I think, ultimately, that's an unfair condition and an unacceptable condition, but uh, I think they'll do what they're ordered to do. If that's what it takes, they'll do it."
The plans are also being attacked as so vague that social workers can use them to undercut religious freedom. FLDS member Willie Jessop says, "They're plenty willing to let another religion bring in their doctrine to teach us, but we won't allow our doctrine and then, of course, we want to say this isn't about religion. I think it's sick and pathetic."
Another criticism of the service plans is they're so vague and general. It's hard for mothers to know how much they have to change lifestyles to win approval. Johana Scot, with the Parent Guidance Center in Austin says, "If this is allowed to stand, then every single person in this state and in this country better watch out."
The attorney for Sharon Barlow, one of the mothers hoping to reunite with her son, objected to the state plan for her to get the boy back, saying it wasn't clear enough. Barlow, 34, must take parenting classes, find a safe living environment and undergo a psychological evaluation, according to the plan. "This plan is so vague and so broad that my client has no idea what she can do now," attorney Donna Guion said.
State District Judge Barbara Walther agreed the plan should be more specific and asked Guion to provide ideas on how that might be done.
That's one of the dilemmas the families now face: How much do they have to change their lifestyle to win approval from the state of Texas.
The mothers have a year to comply with the plans. One of the judges issued a standard warning to the mother of one of Warren Jeffs' children: Comply or face the possibility of permanent loss of parental rights.
Authorities have not identified the mothers of more than 100 children. Officials have been trying to group siblings together with their mothers as the custody case moves forward. So far, 168 mothers and 69 fathers have been identified in court documents, though DNA test results are two to four weeks away.
Child welfare officials have complained that women and children have given different names and lied about ages. The agency has also struggled with identification of children and women because many have similar names, and some of the young women, who don't wear makeup and braid their hair, look much younger than their actual age.
As many as two dozen of the girls held in custody may be adults; authorities are still trying to determine their actual ages.
The children were removed from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado during an April 3 raid that began after someone called a domestic abuse hot line claiming to be a pregnant 16-year-old abused by a much older husband. The girl has never been found and authorities are investigating whether the calls were a hoax.
As FLDS mothers flocked to the courthouse, LDS missionaries showed up to speak to the media and clear up some confusion.
Elder Joe Ipson, of Vernal, Utah, said, "We're just here to say we're not part of that church that's going on."
Elder Auro Sosi said, "There's a big difference. They broke off for our church about 120 years ago."
One missionary said he was physically attacked by a Texan who confused LDS with FLDS. Elder Sosi said, "In situations like that, we've just got to turn the other cheek and walk away and laugh about it."
(The Associated Press contributed to this story. Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)