April 20, 2008

Polygamist Sect Case Formidable For Courts

by Rohan Parker

One of the largest child custody cases in the history of the U.S. is about be to be undertaken in Texas, after 416 children where extracted from a ranch owned by a polygamist sect.

The ranch in Eldorado is the base for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is an off-shoot of the Mormon church. The raid in which the children were rescued occurred on April 3rd, after a call to a domestic violence hot line was made by a 16 year old girl who lived at the ranch, who said she had been beaten and raped by her 50 year old spiritual husband, which had then caused her to give birth.

The children were initially housed at Fort Concho, but after parents complained that the crowdedness was leading to children being sick – approximately 20 children had a mild dose of the chickenpox – they were moved under heavy security to San Angelo Coliseum, which allows for up to 5,000 people and is regularly used for hockey games and concerts.

When the children were removed from Eldorado, 139 mothers went with them, however only those whose children are under 4 have been allowed to remain with the children, according to the spokesperson for Child Protective Services, Marissa Gonzales.

Gonzales stated that the mothers who couldn’t stay with their children, as was standard practice in abuse allegations, were given another safe location to stay at, rather than return to the ranch, though some did return.

Last Monday saw a courtroom conference take place in an effort to outline the way in which this complex and large scale case is going to proceed. The hearing to determine the fate of the children is to start on Thursday. The sect is being accused of physical and sexual abuse of children, and the state is aiming at having all parental rights, including custody, cut and for the children to be adopted or placed in foster care.

Officials from the Texas bar have stated that over 350 lawyers from all over the state offered to represent the children, at no cost. Mothers who no longer reside at the ranch are also considering lawyers, to assist them in retaining custody of their children.

Executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, Betty Balli Torres, said in a statement that she believes it to be of the utmost importance that these mothers be represented appropriately, else they run the risk of losing their children permanently. According to Torres, 10 women have so far been to the legal aid office in San Angelo, though they reported another 100 were in need of representation. The mothers and lawyers began meeting over the weekend.

Rod Parker, the lawyer who represents the polygamist sect, has relayed an offer by the 60 men still residing on the 1,700 acre ranch, to leave the property if that would allow the women and children to return, with the appropriate child welfare monitors, however the Children’s Protective Services office said they had not been given any documentation of such an offer.

This sect is known for the practice of polygamy and the arranged marriages of older men and under-age girls and has thousands of adherents in two towns, side by side, in Arizona and Utah. The group is also known for their leader, Warren S. Jeffs, being jailed for coercing a girl, who was a minor at the time, into marriage in Utah.

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