Five judges, five separate courtrooms, hundreds of hearings. Beginning today, and lasting for the next three weeks, San Angelo, Texas, is host to the largest custody case in history.
What's at stake? The future of 463 children taken by Texas authorities from the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) group ranch and placed in foster care.
I flew in late last night on a small 50-seater jet that was more than half-filled by media from every national TV station and news outlet. Hotel rooms are at a premium. When I pulled up in front of the courthouse this morning, it was 100 degrees outside, though frosty cold in the overly air-conditioned courthouse. But the heat was on for the 168 mothers and 69 fathers of these children. The sole purpose of the hearings is to review the "family service plan" from Child Protective Services for each child. Is it specific enough so the parents know what they have to do in order to regain custody?
Six-year-old Samuel Jeffs was the subject of the first hearing I attended. It was being tried in the courtroom of State District Judge Barbara Walther. She's very bright, engaging, clear speaking, and much to the dismay of some of the attorneys for the parents who attempted to sidetrack the proceedings, she doesn't put up with any bull.
Little Samuel is the son of 34-year-old Sharon Barlow, a petite, almost childlike-looking woman, and sect leader Warren Jeffs, who is currently in jail. Jeffs was convicted in Utah of being an accomplice to rape in the marriage of a 14-year-old to her 19-year-old first cousin (the 14-year-old was Elissa Wall, who has just published a book called Stolen Innocence about growing up in the cult). And little Samuel, one of 10 children in state custody who are believed to be the children of Jeffs, has a birth defect that requires a prosthetic leg. Barlow only has this one child, possibly a result of the FLDS belief that birth defects (as well as all disease) indicate wrongdoing. Samuel is being fitted for a new prosthesis by the state of Texas, and set up with a course in physical therapy.
The attorney for the boy's mother objected to the CPS plan for her to get the boy back, saying it wasn't clear enough. According to the plan, Barlow must take parenting classes, find a safe living environment, and undergo a psychological evaluation, and the judge approved it.
One mother, Barbara Jessop, whose son Sampson was fathered by Merrill Jessop (the husband of Carolyn Jessop, who left the cult and wrote the book, Escape), wouldn't speak to the court at all because of a pending criminal investigation. She didn't want to acknowledge that she had even read the plan, clearly worried that anything she said could be used as evidence against her.
Some parents did not object to the plan they were presented with. Cynthia Joy Jessop, with an infant she was allowed to keep at home, and Richard Samuel Jessop have six children together, and they are trying to get their three older boys together into one foster home in San Antonio. Unlike the others I saw, these parents made eye contact with each other and with the court. They felt they could do the plan.
It's true the plans are somewhat similar, for good reason. They all involve training in parenting, psychological evaluation, vocational evaluation of the parents, and housing. From there, the "cookie cutter" aspects disappear. As the weeks go on, the plans will become more and more individualized. As the parents implement the services named in the plans, the experts report back and the plan can change.
Some parents claimed surprise at the proceedings, although they've had sufficient notice about the public hearings. How could they be surprised by anything? These are members of a cult known for its capricious and arbitrary events. A man can be told to leave his wife and kids and go to another town to "repent," while his wife is "reassigned" to marry another man, who has to be seen by her kids as their new father.
If a boy shows any indication of wanting to think for himself, he is dumped outside of town by his parents and becomes a non-person, unable to contact his family. Out of the 463 children, 250 are girls and 213 are boys, but there are only 17 boys aged 14 to 17 compared with the 53 girls in that age range.
A young teen girl can be told at any time that she will now be married to a man, possibly many times older, who can be a total stranger. More than half the 53 teen girls between the ages of 14 and 17 have children or are pregnant, state officials said. As a spokesman for Child Protective Services said, "It shows you a pretty distinct pattern, that it was pretty pervasive."
It's hard to imagine what will happen with these children. Even freed from the possibility of being dumped on the street or married off too young, how will they be freed from the fear of the "outside" world? Fear of the good people of Texas who are trying their best to help them?
With much time, and much kindness.