Constitutional Law

Huge 416-Child Custody Hearing in Texas Ranch Raid Involves 350 Lawyers


Updated: A huge custody hearing began today concerning 416 children taken by Texas officials from a ranch operated by a renegade Mormon sect that reportedly promotes polygamy. It bogged down almost immediately as lawyers for the children demanded to see the evidence being introduced—three teenagers’ medical records.

“State District Judge Barbara Walther called a recess 40 minutes after the hearing began in what could be the nation’s largest child custody case. She wanted to allow the 350 lawyers spread out in two buildings to read the evidence and decide whether to object en masse or make individual objections,” writes the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, an attorney representing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services asked the judge at the outset of the hearing to order DNA testing and pscyhological evaluations for all the children and their parents, reports the Salt Lake Tribune, a Utah newspaper. Reportedly, it isn’t clear, concerning many of the children, who their biological parents are, and there is even confusion about some of the childrens’ names.

Attorneys ad litem appointed by Texas to represent the children objected to the mass hearing, but the judge said it’s appropriate, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

“It’s not a perfect solution, and I wish I could give you a perfect solution, but there is not one,” Walther said in court today. “If you will be patient, you will see we do have a plan and you will be able to represent your clients individually.”

Reports CNN: “Some attorneys said they were having to use limited information in representing children, particularly young ones. Lawyer Susan Hays, representing a toddler, said she arrived at the hearing without records and had no access to the child’s father.”

The hearing was held at the Tom Green County Courthouse. The ranch is located near Eldorado, Texas, about 40 miles south of San Angelo.

As discussed in earlier ABAJournal.com posts, the 416 children were removed by state officials from the Yearning For Zion ranch operated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints between April 3 and April 8. The raid was conducted after a 16-year-old complained that she had been “spiritually” married at 15 to a much older man who already had six other wives; that she was pregnant, for the second time, with his child; and said that teens at the ranch were in similar situations. Although state officials say it was necessary to remove the children and separate even those as young as 5 from their parents, a number of mothers contend that their children were removed without adequate cause.

“They have an unsubstantiated allegation of abuse,” Rod Parker, a lawyer acting as a spokesman for FDLS families, told CNN last night. “And, in response to this unsubstantiated, uncorroborated allegation, they removed not just the children from one home, but every child in the community.”

“This is probably the biggest child custody action that’s ever taken place in the United States, and it’s also one of the most complex,” professor Peter Swisher of the University of Richmond’s National Center for Family Law tells the Los Angeles Times. “Any evidence of child abuse has to be investigated as a matter of state law … . And it has to be conducted on an individual basis because the facts are going to differ from child to family.”

Related coverage:

Salt Lake Tribune: “Mainstream Mormons feel torn over polygamous ranch raid”

Houston Chronicle: “Officials say children are doing well away from parents”

ABAJournal.com: “350 Lawyers Trek to San Angelo, Charging ‘Billables for the Soul’”

Updated at 3 p.m. to add Los Angeles Times coverage.

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