SAN ANGELO, Texas – Attorneys for Texas child welfare authorities began presenting evidence Monday at a hearing on whether a girl allegedly given in marriage at age 12 to jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs should be returned to foster care.
The state wants to remove the girl, now 14, and an 11-year-old brother from the care of her mother, saying the woman has refused to guarantee the girl won't have contact with men accused of being involved in underage marriages. The girl's father allegedly blessed her marriage to Jeffs and the underage marriages of at least two sisters.
The hearing began with a Texas Ranger identifying documents seized in the April raid of the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado. Carolyn Jessop, who ran away from the girl's father and now is a best-selling author, also was expected to testify.
The hearing was delayed during the morning while lawyers in the girl's case and three other cases tried to negotiate settlements. The state dropped efforts Monday to get custody of the girl's 17-year-old brother. Lawyers still hoped to negotiate deals on three other children with different mothers.
In documents submitted with the state's custody petition, the 14-year-old girl is quoted as telling a caseworker that a young teenage girl marrying an older man "can't be a crime because Heavenly Father is the one that tells Warren when a girl is ready to get married."
Child welfare authorities have been investigating the cases of 440 children since the Texas Supreme Court ordered that the children swept from the YFZ Ranch in the April raid be returned to their parents. The state has asked the court to dismiss cases involving 76 children, including nine who have turned 18 since the custody case began; the remaining cases are still under investigation.
Monday's hearing was the first effort by Child Protective Services since the Supreme Court ruling to retake custody of children whose parents belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The high court said CPS overreached in sweeping all the FLDS into state custody, noting CPS showed no more than a handful of teenage girls were abused or were at risk of abuse.
Willie Jessop, an FLDS spokesman, said nothing has happened to justify the children being removed again. None of the children the state wants back in foster care currently live at the ranch.
"They couldn't find (abuse) the first time it came up. What's changed?" he said.
Jessop also noted the church made it clear it wouldn't sanction underage marriages and that doctrine has been in place for more than two years.
The FLDS believes polygamy brings glory in heaven. It is a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.
Jeffs, already convicted as accomplice to rape in Utah and awaiting trial on similar charges in Arizona, was indicted along with four followers in Texas last month on charges of sexual assault of a child. One of the followers was also indicted on a bigamy charge.
A sixth man, Dr. Lloyd Hammon Barlow, was indicted on three misdemeanor counts of failing to report child abuse. Authorities are seeking custody of his two daughters, saying he didn't report the babies he delivered to underage girls and that he married a 16-year-old.