Judges this week are beginning to hold status hearings for every child taken from a West Texas compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. More than 460 children were removed because of allegations of child sexual abuse by the polygamist group. They were placed in foster care throughout Texas.
Polly Rae O'Toole is one of more than 350 lawyers who answered a call to provide pro bono representation for the children. She says says families face an "impossible situation," with parents having to travel thousands of miles each week to visit their children.
O'Toole is representing not one of the sets of parents but an 8-year-old girl, one of the 460 children who were seized from a compound in Eldorado, Texas. O'Toole says the girl is one of eight children born to the same family and has been placed in a foster home outside San Antonio by Texas Child Protection Services officials. Her seven siblings, meanwhile, now live in five different foster homes spread over the state.
"It's very difficult for their parents," O'Toole says, noting that they get visitation rights of just one hour per week per child. In order not to miss even one visitation, O'Toole says, they travel Texas from "stem to stern."
O'Toole says that this week, for the first time, there are indications Texas CPS has a concrete plan for the children — and that the plan is identical to O'Toole's: Return as many of the children as possible to their parents.
The problem? "It doesn't seem to us that CPS has a very clear idea of how to do that," O'Toole says.
Before any of the children return to parental custody, O'Toole says, CPS has indicated it wants to ensure that the parents first understand what O'Toole calls the "evils of polygamy."
To achieve that understanding, O'Toole says parents will be expected to find independent living arrangements outside the Eldorado compound. They must also find regular employment, attend counseling and enroll in parenting classes.
The details of CPS' vision for each child will be outlined over the next three weeks, in individual parenting plans known as 60-day "status hearings." O'Toole says the plans are written documents filed with the court and that they serve as road maps for everyone involved.
O'Toole has made more than a few sacrifices to work on the case. She's based in Dallas, and whenever she needs to appear in court, she travels the almost 300 miles to San Angelo. And for the regular visits to the 8-year-old girl — mandated by court — O'Toole travels another nearly 300 miles to San Antonio. She says all of her time and expenses are completely pro bono.
But O'Toole's first day in court could have an immediate impact. "I have filed a motion and set it for the same day as the hearing," O'Toole says. The plan? That the girl "be returned to her mother's care immediately."