SAN ANGELO, Texas — Children from a polygamist sect were the only subjects on the docket Monday at a west Texas courthouse where five judges began handling hundreds of hearings that attorneys for the children's parents decried for their cookie-cutter approach.
State child welfare officials gave each of the more than 460 children in state custody the same template plan for parents to follow, and judges made few changes. But parents remained without answers to important questions, including whether a requirement that the children live in a "safe" environment means they can't return to the Yearning For Zion Ranch.
Donna Guion, an attorney for the mother of a 6-year-old son of the sect's jailed prophet, Warren Jeffs, complained the plans were so vague they would be impossible to satisfy and were contingent on psychological evaluations likely to take weeks more to complete.
"This plan is so vague and so broad that my client has no idea what she can do now," Guion said of the boy's mother.
Dozens of mothers in prairie dresses and fathers in button-down shirts, flanked by pro bono lawyers from the state's most prestigious firms as well as Legal Aid, arrived at the Tom Green County Courthouse hoping to learn what exactly they must to do regain custody of their children.
"What the parents are trying to find out here is what they need to do to get their children back, and there's no clear answer to that," said Rod Parker, spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which runs the ranch in Eldorado.
The hearings in nearby San Angelo are scheduled to run for the next three weeks, and none of the judges would allow any discussion about whether the initial grounds for removing the children in a raid of the ranch last month were valid. It probably will be months before the cases are reviewed again in court.
Texas child welfare authorities argued that all the children, ranging from newborns to teenagers, should be removed from the ranch because the sect pushes underage girls into marriage and sex and encourages boys to become future perpetrators.
Church members insist there was no abuse. They say the one-size-fits-all action plan devised by the state's Child Protective Services doesn't take into account specific marriage arrangements or living circumstances.
Some members of the renegade Mormon sect lived in a communal setting in large log houses they built themselves. Others lived as traditional nuclear families in their own housing on the YFZ ranch.
Child Protective Services spokeswoman Shari Pulliam said the plans look similar now but will be customized as officials get more information.
"It's logical they all look the same. All the children were removed from the same address at the same time for the same reason," she said. But "it's an evolving plan."
All the plans call for parenting classes, vocational training for the parents and require the parents to prove they can support their children. They also call for safe living environments, though they offer no specifics. The parents will be required to outline their plans for earning a living and living arrangements.
The plan does not require parents to renounce polygamy or guarantee that their daughters won't be married before the age of consent, which in Texas is 17.
The children were removed from the ranch during an April 3 raid that began after someone called a domestic abuse hot line claiming to be a pregnant 16-year-old abused by a much older husband. The girl has never been found, and authorities are investigating whether the calls were a hoax.