Polygamy Custody Hearings Halted

(CBS/AP) A court hearing in Texas to decide the fates of hundreds of children seized from a polygamist retreat ground to a halt almost as soon as it began Thursday as hundreds of lawyers demanded to study the first piece of evidence before it could be introduced.

State District Judge Barbara Walther called a recess 40 minutes after the hearing began in what could be the nation's largest child custody case. She wanted to allow the 350 lawyers spread out in two buildings to read the evidence and decide whether to object en masse or make individual objections.

The lawyers are representing the 416 children and dozens of parents from the Yearning For Zion ranch owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a renegade Mormon sect accused of forcing underage girls into polygamous marriages.

The courtroom and a satellite courtroom set up in an auditorium two blocks away were jammed with dozens of mothers from the retreat, dressed in pastel prairie dresses and braided upswept hair.

The mothers were sworn in as witnesses, standing and mumbling their 'I do's' in timid voices. As they sat silently, the flock of lawyers was constantly buzzing with murmurs and popping up to make motions or object.

But when prosecutors tried to enter into evidence the medical records of three girls - two 17-year-olds and an 18-year-old - the lawyers jumped to their feet trying to see the papers. That's when the judge called the recess.

Outside the courtroom in front of the news media, a man who said he was an FLDS father waved a photo of himself surrounded by his four children, ranging in age from an infant to about 9.

"Look, look, look," the father said. "These children are all smiling, we're happy."

Walther signed an emergency order nearly two weeks ago giving the state custody of the children after a 16-year-old girl called an abuse hot line claiming her husband, a 50-year-old member of the sect, beat and raped her. The girl has yet to be identified.

Authorities raided the ranch and spent a week collecting documents and disk drives that might provide evidence of underage girls being married to adults.

Since being taken from the ranch, the children shuffled through three shelters; they're now staying at a domed coliseum at the fairgrounds in San Angelo, Texas. Twenty-seven of the teenage boys are staying at a ranch in Amarillo, Texas.

The custody case is one of the largest in U.S. history and involves children from 6 months to 17 years in age. Roughly 100 of the children are under age 4.

Responding to criticism that the raid on the compound has destroyed the lives of the families, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told CBS' The Early Show the state's goal is to protect the children and remove them from any alleged "dangerous situation."

State officials contend the children were being physically and sexually abused or were in imminent danger of such abuse.

FLDS members say the state is persecuting them for their faith and that their 1,700-acre Yearning for Zion Ranch, with its soaring white temple and log cabin-style houses, is simply a home isolated from a hostile and sinful world.

They deny children were abused.

"It's the furthest thing away from what we do here," said Dan, a sect member who declined to give his last name because he said he fears how it will affect his children in state custody.

Flora Jessop, a former wife in a polygamous sect who later escaped, defended the state's handling of the situation. "Texas did the right thing," Jessop told The Early Show. "They went in to help the child. Regardless of what happens, the system worked."

A major issue in the custody cases will be how a home is defined - whether by the individual house each child lived in or by the larger ranch, said attorney Susan Hays, who represents a 2-year-old child. Under Texas law, if sexual abuse is occurring in a home and a parent does not stop it, then the parent can lose custodial rights.

The judge also must decide whether it's in the best interest of children who have lived insulated lives to be suddenly placed into mainstream society, Hays said.

Typically, each child would be given a separate hearing, but given the number of cases, it's likely the judge will have the state, the children's attorneys and the parents' attorneys make consolidated presentations, at least initially, said Harper Estes, president-elect of the state bar.

If the judge gives the state permanent custody, it will have an enormous challenge in finding homes for the children in an already tight foster system.

The agency will also have to decipher sibling relationships that should be preserved if it gets permanent custody.

The sect came to Texas in 2003, relocating some members from the church's traditional home along the Utah-Arizona state line. It traces its religious roots to the early theology of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which now denounces polygamy.


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