Jun 2, 2008

A new deal on FLDS offered

Ben Winslow
Deseret News

June 2, 2008

SAN ANGELO, Texas — A new order to return hundreds of children taken in the raid on the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch will be put before a judge today.

Lawyers representing FLDS mothers, children and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services met for several hours Sunday at a state office building, hammering out a new order for Judge Barbara Walther's consideration.

"We reached consensus on some things and other things we really didn't. We're just making an effort to try and get this worked out as soon as possible so we can get the kids home," said Brad Haralson, a San Angelo lawyer representing three FLDS mothers.

If Walther signs the proposed order, the children could be reunited with their parents as early as Tuesday. Texas child welfare authorities indicated the order would apply to all of the children in state custody — not just the children whose mothers successfully appealed the judge's decision to Austin's 3rd Court of Appeals.

Attorneys have been trying to figure out what to do after Walther abruptly left the bench on Friday, refusing to sign an order to return the children to their mothers.

The Texas Supreme Court and the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin both ruled that Texas child welfare authorities acted improperly in removing more than 450 children from the YFZ Ranch while they investigated allegations of abuse. The courts ordered Walther to return more than 130 children to their parents — but allowed her to set conditions. It also allowed Child Protective Services the ability to continue its investigation.

Negotiations broke down in court on Friday, leaving parents and attorneys unsure of when they will be reunited with their children.

"The judge has a right to enter an order, whether or not the parties agree," said Andrea Sloan, a lawyer representing a group of young women Texas claimed were underage. "At the end of the day, because of time constraints, I would expect she will just enter the order."

Lawyers declined to detail what the new order would say but said the language that was tweaked was a compromise. There will be no hearing today; the order will be dropped in the judge's box for her to sign.

"I think she's going to sign whatever order she wants to sign," said Kirk Hawkins, a lawyer representing four FLDS mothers. "It's closer to her version."

The sticking point still appears to be a disagreement over whether the judge has the authority to impose broad conditions giving Texas CPS authority over the families, or whether the judge should just free the children.

Julie Balovich, an attorney for the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Society (representing 38 FLDS mothers), argued in court that the judge should just release the children. She left Sunday's meeting without commenting.

Proposed orders have required parenting classes, access to homes at various times, interviews and medical evaluations, travel restrictions — and how long CPS can be involved in the families' lives.

"It's not an agreed order," Hawkins said. "It's the judge's order. We're just hoping she'll sign an order. You can't get 400 lawyers to agree. We just went over her order and tried to clean up the language some."

Some attorneys complained they weren't in on the discussions at all. Deborah Keenun, a court-appointed attorney representing 11 children in state custody, arrived as the meeting was breaking up. Others found out about the meeting from news reporters.

"There's a lot of general frustration from attorneys who have not been part of the process, when under the law we're supposed to be," Keenun said.

If the order is signed, the children will not be bused en masse to the YFZ Ranch. Instead, parents will go to foster care facilities that have sheltered the children and pick them up. Once they are reunited with their children, some families may not return to the ranch.

"Many of them will be getting independent housing," said Laura Shockley, a lawyer representing a group of young women Texas believed were underage.

She declined to say why they would not return — citing attorney-client privilege — but said some parents are trying to respect the concerns of Texas child welfare authorities and remain with their children.

"They're going to listen to what they think CPS is requiring and try to respond that way," Sloan said.

Texas CPS has claimed the YFZ Ranch is essentially "one household," with a culture of sexual abuse that grooms girls to be child brides, and boys to be sexual perpetrators.

The YFZ Ranch was raided April 3 when Texas child welfare workers and law enforcement responded to the FLDS property on a report of a 16-year-old girl who was pregnant and in an abusive, polygamous marriage with an older man. The girl was never found, an arrest warrant for the alleged husband was dropped and Texas authorities are still investigating whether the original call was a hoax.

Once on the ranch, authorities said they found other signs of abuse, prompting Walther to order the removal of all of the FLDS children.

Texas child welfare authorities had claimed to have as many as 31 pregnant or underage mothers in custody. They were young women the FLDS insisted were adults. On Sunday, Shockley told the Deseret News that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has declared all but "four or five" to be adults.

"We're happy that our 29-year-old client is now an adult," Sloan said.

A spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services could not immediately confirm the status of the "disputed minors" on Sunday.

E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com


No comments: