What will happen to the children?
Beginning Monday, that's the question before Texas courts as the state opens the next phase in determining whether 465 children removed from a ranch operated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) should be reunited with their parents or permanently removed from their homes.
In the first of a series of hearings, to occur at six-month intervals for 18 months, the state is expected to present a plan for each child that outlines what steps parents must take to be reunited with their offspring. The plans also identify the services the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) can provide to help the family achieve that outcome.
"The important thing to understand is this generally is not an opportunity to relitigate the removal [of the children]," says Scott McCown, a retired Texas judge who now directs the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. "The child has already been removed, so this is about where we go from here. What's the plan?"
The children were taken from the FLDS Yearning for Zion ranch near Eldorado, Texas, in early April, sparking the biggest child custody case in US history. Two weeks later, state district Judge Barbara Walther ruled there was evidence to indicate the children were at risk of sexual abuse if they returned to the ranch. The sect is known to sanction "spiritual marriages" of underage girls, usually to older men who already have one wife or more. Of 53 girls the state believes to be minors (some girls gave conflicting accounts of their ages), more than 30 have children, are pregnant, or both, DFPS has reported.
Since that first hearing, all 465 children have been placed in foster care, with siblings staying together when possible, throughout the state.
Family reunification the probable aim
Experts expect the DFPS plans will mostly call for children to eventually be reunited with their mothers, but possibly not with their fathers and probably not at the YFZ ranch.
"The mother may have to get a job or enroll in a job training program, or go to parenting classes to learn about problems with sexual and physical abuse," says Mr. McCown. "Then [the plans] will address the needs of the children, such as they may be put in counseling [and] receive an educational assessment."
Attorneys ad litem, representing each child, will weigh in on that child's plan and possibly negotiate changes with the child's social worker. Parents, too, all represented by individual attorneys, will have an opportunity to sign onto that plan.
"Some of the lawyers are advising their parents to sign the plan and some are not," says Rod Parker, an attorney in Salt Lake City who is acting spokesman for the FLDS group in Texas. "If it were me, I'd be advising parents not to sign them."
The plans' vagueness sets parents up to fail, Mr. Parker says. "For example, the plans say parents have to provide a safe environment," he says. "That language raises three questions: One, is it [the state's] position that the parent can or cannot return to the ranch? Two, is it [the state's] position that the parent can or cannot teach this religion to the children? Three, is it [the state's] position that the men can or cannot reside in the home?"
The biggest complication is the sheer number of children, says Ellen Marrus of the Center for Children, Law and Policy at the University of Houston. "Even though some of the situations are similar, that doesn't mean that for each child and set of parents it will be the exact same plan. ... The courts are supposed to look at each one individually."
That is, by all accounts, difficult when there are so many children of such a vast age range, from infants to 18-year-olds.
A lawyer takes exception to removal
Polly O'Toole, a Dallas attorney who represents an 8-year-old girl taken from the ranch, says the court has not looked at the cases individually. The girl she represents is one of eight children.
"There was no evidence introduced that either of these parents has abused or neglected these children in any way," Ms. O'Toole says. "The parents identified themselves, they have a marriage license, birth certificates, and they don't believe in underage marriage."
O'Toole has visited the San Antonio facility where her client and one sibling are staying. The other siblings are in four other facilities throughout the state, and O'Toole has been to one of those. Although critical of the DFPS process and workers, she says the two facilities are providing exceptional care.
A status hearing for the 8-year-old and her seven siblings is set for June 3. O'Toole says she has moved to return the children to their parents or, at least, to their mother, and learned last week that the court will entertain her motion.
Meanwhile, Parker says at least four petitions have been filed with Texas appeals courts challenging the original removal of the children.