Apr 19, 2008

A day in court: Highlights of the FLDS custody hearing

Trish Choate
San Angelo Standard-Times

April 19, 2008

Modestly dressed men and women from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints listened quietly as intimate details of their lives marched forth matter-of-factly in Day 2 of testimony in a hearing to set temporary custody for 416 of their children.

W. John Walsh, an FLDS expert, said he hoped he wasn't embarrassing sect members, before launching into an explanation of their family values, and attitudes toward sex and underage marriage as he sees them.

"Most FLDS men have never seen their wives naked, no matter how long they've been married," said Walsh.

He was testifying on behalf of parents during the custody hearing.

All eyes in the dimly lit San Angelo Auditorium focused on Walsh, whose slightly blurry on-screen presence filled the cavernous room.

This was a new wrinkle in proceedings to determine whether 416 YFZ Ranch children will go back to their parents. Child Protective Services took them into custody this month after suspicions arose of sexual abuse.

Lawyers, media and law-enforcement officers froze, distracted from fatigue, frustration, confusion, anger, boredom or all of the above.

An unspoken agreement formed not to eyeball FLDS members sitting toward the back of the auditorium. They have been constant subjects of sideways glances, stolen looks and outright stares during the two days of the hearing, the women's old-fashioned dresses especially a novelty.

Here are excerpts from a rolling log of events from Day 2 kept on gosanangelo.com by Standard-Times reporters:

§ "What's important to the court at this point is what do I need to know to know whether or not the children can be returned," Walther says. "That's what I'm focusing on. You all focus on whatever you want."

§ "If the situation could be proposed that the men would leave the community and not have contact," and the same supervision provided as at the San Angelo Coliseum, would (Child Protective Services supervisor Angie) Voss be willing to allow the children to return?

No, Voss answers: "The ranch is 1,700 acres. It's huge. There is no way to secure that I'm aware of."

§ A parents' attorney complains that her mothers haven't been served proper legal documents.

The judge notes the problem of identifying the parents, and that names are "being switched back and forth" in the case.

§ "Up to this point in the investigation, there are over 20 girls in the investigation who have conceived or given birth at the age of 16 or 17," Voss says. "What I'm telling you is that there is a culture of young girls being pregnant by old men."

§ Under questioning from the parents' attorney who's pursuing his objection, the psychiatrist says he has gotten much of his information from the media. Guffaws break out.

§ "What can a parent say to a judge that could be helpful in getting that child returned?" the parents' attorney says.

The witness replies, "What would make me feel comfortable is if a parent came forward and said, 'I don't think a girl should get married as a young teen. We need to know more about the outside world and be more transparent about their beliefs.'" It also would be a good sign if the parent asked for some advice about creating a healthy environment for their children, the psychiatrist adds.

"Believe me, so much of what they do out there is wonderful," he says.

§ "We started this process with over 400 attorneys. Unfortunately, we have a number of attorneys who have had to leave town and have appointed co-counsel," the attorney says. She inquires about perhaps taking lunch so they can get organized.

No, lunch "would only embolden you all," the judge says.

All laugh.

§ The FLDS has been subject to persecution, an FLDS expert says: Law enforcement officers have come in and asked the children, "Who is your mommy, and who is your daddy?" When the children answered, then mommy and daddy went to jail for bigamy.

"Most FLDS men have never even seen their wives naked, no matter how long they've been married," the expert offers under questioning from yet another child's attorney.

They wear religious garments at all times, long-john type garments, he says. They don't take them off during sex.

The FLDS members also have conservative family values, the expert says.


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