Children from Polygamist Compound in Legal Limbo

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On Thursday, the Texas legal system will begin the arduous process of reviewing the cases of hundreds of children removed from a polygamist compound earlier this month. Wade Goodwyn examines the social and legal issues involved.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of one of the largest child custody hearings in American history.

A Texas judge will hear arguments about 416 children seized from a ranch belonging to a polygamist group. The state is expected to argue that the children are all at risk of abuse.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn has the story.

WADE GOODWYN: When Texas Child Welfare officials first seized the children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch, they allowed more than a hundred mothers to come along. But that ended earlier this week. Only mothers with children under five years old have been allowed to stay. Most of the others are back at the ranch.

Yesterday, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints allowed television cameras inside their ranch for the first time.

ABC's "Good Morning America" talked to some of the bereft moms.

U: They wouldn't let her take you.

U: (Unintelligible)

U: And they said, were not going to let it happen.

GOODWYN: If you think the State of Texas is cringing at the public relations fallout from separating hundreds of mothers from hundreds of children, think again.

From the beginning of the raid, Texas child welfare officials and law enforcement have exhibited a steely resolve. Tomorrow morning, they are expected to argue before state district judge Barbara Walters that the group's particular brand of polygamy, which involves marrying underage girls, constitutes jeopardy for abuse for all the children of the FLDS.

John J. Samson, law professor at the University of Texas explains the statute.

P: Are the conditions or surroundings in which the children are being raised a danger to the child? That can be based on actions against other children. Normally, of course, we're talking about other children in the immediate family. But the code goes beyond that to say that if you abused another child, that, too, is grounds for state action.

GOODWYN: The hearing tomorrow is the first in the series. The state's burden of proof rises throughout the process. Tomorrow's hearing is weighted against the FLDS parents. In this first round, the law demands the judge take no chances with the children's well-being. That's likely to translate into Texas keeping custody for now. The children will be represented by both lawyers and child advocates.

Michael Piraino is the CEO of the National Casa Association, which is working intensely with the FLDS children. He says his advocates are in the very first stages of building relationships.

NORRIS: The difficulty in this situation is, of course, how do you - how do you be objective in the midst of all the emotion around something like this? How do you make sure that these kids - there are 416 of them - how do you make sure that they are going to be treated as individuals in the court hearing?

GOODWYN: But treating the children as individual cases is not necessarily going to be the prosecution's strategy. And with the state alleging that it has seized multiple pregnant minors, including one 16-year-old who's reportedly given birth to four children already, that's a level of evidence that's likely to stand up in any Texas hearing.

The state had a trial run at this back in 1993 with the siege of the Branch Davidians. Twenty-one children left the Davidian complex, and Dr. Bruce Perry, one of the state's leading child psychiatrist, was brought in to assess those children. And Perry is now in San Angelo assessing the FLDS children. He says their re-education is just beginning.

GOODWYN: You don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water. The challenge is to not say that all of these things that you've learned about hard work and about your faith in God, those are not things that we want you to abandon. But we do want you to abandon the idea that 12-year-old girls should be able to be married in a polygamist marriage, and 13, 14-year-old children should be parents, or the 10th wife of somebody.

GOODWYN: More than 350 family lawyers from every part of Texas have volunteered to represent the children. Lawyers for the FLDS have declined to comment on their strategy. But the evidence the state seized in its raid of the ranch was taken under a search warrant that was almost unprecedented in its scope. It was as if Texas searched an entire neighborhood, going from house to house, family to family, taking hard drives, Bibles, and family papers.

The admissibility of all this evidence is by no means a slam dunk for the state.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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