Polygamist Raid Leads to Huge Custody Battle

State officials are seeking custody of more than 400 children taken from a polygamist ranch in West Texas two weeks ago. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is trying to block the move.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

A custody hearing has begun in West Texas for the more than 400 children taken from a polygamist ranch. And if today is any indication, it's going to be a long process.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn has been at the hearing in San Angelo, Texas. He joins us now.

Wade, how are things going so far?

WADE GOODWYN: You've never seen a bigger mess than this morning's hearing. It's not that it was badly run by the state judge Barbara Walter, I think she's doing fine. But the way the state originally went in to the polygamist ranch, going house to house and seizing the children under 17, 416 of them.

Now, put that with 400 lawyers assigned to the children, to the mothers, to the fathers, all with potentially different legal interests, and you add to that to that all these lawyers have just gotten here, out in the middle of West Texas. They hardly know their clients, but the one thing they do know is that Texas went into ranch likes gangbusters.

So they're all champing at the bit. The state can barely say two sentences out of its mouth before there's an objection. Objection after objection and all the kids and the women have the same names. So they're trying to figure out who's who using birthdays. So you get these scenes where, say, someone named Sarah Jessup(ph) is mentioned in the state exhibit. Then all these lawyers stand up and say, is this my Sarah Jessup(ph), whose Sarah Jessup is this? I object. Take it from me, it was enough to make you weep.

NORRIS: Now, this could have been chaotic if we were talking about 12 children or 24 children, we're talking about 416 children.

GOODWYN: Yeah. I mean, the question is with all this evidence seized, is it going to stand up in court with all these people involved and that's the $64 question. There's no doubt the state of Texas went into the Yearning for Zion ranch, and it conducted the house-to-house search, family to family, taking anything they thought could help them identify the children or might be evidence of sexual abuse.

I read the search warrants and essentially that's what they say they could take. But that turned out to be a lot of stuff. They took all the computer hard drives, the family Bibles, everyone's personal papers. But, when you're looking for evidence of sexual abuse, the law gives a state a lot of leeway there. And it's all in such a big scale that we're setting precedent here in San Angelo. There's no question. How much of this evidence gets in? That's were we're going to see.

NORRIS: Now, I understand that some of the men and women from the polygamous group actually came to court today. What was the scene there? What was their reaction as all was going on?

GOODWYN: Well, you could see the grief on everybody's face. These people are western, in the old sense of the word. They're very dignified. But the state has gone in there and blown their world completely to pieces, emptied the thriving community of all this children. So they're devastated.

Now, Judge Barbara Walters, she's also a western woman - West Texas. But she's not taciturn, she's boisterous and confident and laughs a lot like West Texas women do. But, when she laughs from the bench that's just sends the FLDS women reeling in despair. They put their heads on their hands, you can just see them thinking, oh my god, this woman is going to take our children. And I don't think the judge has realized yet the effect her personality is having on the members of this polygamous group.

NORRIS: No laughing matter to them.

That's NPR's Wade Goodwyn in San Angelo, Texas. Thanks so much, Wade.

GOODWYN: It's my pleasure.

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