At least that is the theory. The FLDS community had no chance of withstanding Texas’ military style onslaught of its community almost two weeks ago–and to their credit they cooperated with Texas’ authorities, thereby avoiding bloodshed; however, now the law is supposed to level the playing field and allow the FLDS mothers and fathers the same ability as Texas to make their case in a court of law, rather than at the barrel of an automatic weapon or riding on an armored personnel carrier. We will see how that plays out today.
I have not seen anything suggesting the hearing(s) will actually be televised. Of course, I wish they would–but it doesn’t look like that will happen. I am certain, however, that the various media sources will provide coverage as best they can.
Today’s roundup of media coverage on the hearing includes:
The Salt Lake Tribune (Texas hearing will determine fate of 416 children)
The judge must make a key decision early on in the hearing: whether due process requires each child to have a separate hearing. Child Protective Services attorneys have said they intended to present a single case covering all of the children – an approach that attorneys for the parents are likely to reject.
Guy Choate, a San Angelo attorney helping to coordinate volunteer attorneys, predicted the cases will be handled en masse.
“It’s clearly impossible to have 416 hearings,” he said. “These kids could turn 21 by the time we finished.”
Well, Texas has made its legal bed, and now it’s time to lie in it. No one forced Texas to coordinate a military style assault on the FLDS community and remove every single child. I’ve posted links to the various Texas Family Law code sections, see here and here. I haven’t read anything in those code sections that allows for one en masse hearing just because Texas jumped the gun and arrested everyone in sight. I think fundamental due process requires a separate hearing for each and every child and the parents of those children. If Texas is going to argue all the children are abused and the parents abusive, then due process requires the parents be allowed to present evidence to rebut Texas’ legal claims.
Salt Lake Tribune (Historic battle brewing in Lone Star State)
Today, the Tom Green County Courthouse will be the setting for a historic hearing on the children’s welfare. The state will argue parents belonging to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints put them at risk through physical abuse and socializing them into accepting early, illegal marriages.
The parents will resist the state’s attempt to make a single argument that envelops all the families, and defend a lifestyle they say is aimed at raising moral, pure and beloved children.
“We want our families back and we want to be together again,” said Nancy, 19, who said she spent 11 days in the shelter with a diabetic younger sister. “We want our children home.
Again, one of the critical determinations will be the judge’s decision on individual hearings or not. The article also notes Texas has been changing its laws in response to the arrival of the FLDS community:
In 2005, the Texas Legislature passed child protection legislation that included provisions targeting FLDS marriage practices.
“The overwhelming majority of people in Texas want to prevent little girls from being forced to be married and forced into sexual relationships,” said sponsoring state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran. “Our laws needed to be updated even if this group hadn’t come to Texas.”
The changes raised the marriage age to 16, outlawed first cousin and stepparent marriages, made it a crime to officiate at illegal marriages and to enter a polygamous union.
“This isn’t a part of Texas values, having polygamy, bigamy and forcing marriage of teenage girls,” Hilderbran said. “We didn’t invite them to come here, but if they’re going to come here, they’ve got to obey Texas law.”
What about Texas–is it also obligated to comply with its own laws? Will the court decide to afford each of these children and their parents an individual hearing as contemplated in the statutes passed by Texas’ legislature? One way the court could really cut to the core of the real issues involved–allegations of child abuse–would be to require individual hearings for each child. That way, the state would likely be forced to drop the majority of its wild claims and focus solely on those specific cases where it thinks it can prove the child abuse. This is how it should be.
Salt Lake Tribune (FLDS case lands judge in hot spot)
SAN ANGELO, Texas – There has been little in the ringing voice or confident expression of 51st District Judge Barbara L. Walther that hints she is at the center of a firestorm, although this is a moment that could define her career.
The fate of 416 children seized from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ ranch is in her hands.
Today, Walther must reign in the first major court hearing of the biggest custody case in Texas history, a mammoth undertaking bringing together hundreds of attorneys, parents, and onlookers for arguments over keeping the children in the state’s care.
“We need to handle these cases on an individual basis, family by family, parent by parent,” Walther said in court earlier this week, gesturing to several gaggles of attorneys. “I’m not going to adopt any hard and fast rules. I want your input.”
This last quote is interesting. If accurate, it could signal the judge’s thinking on whether to consider each case on its individual claims and allegations or whether to give Texas a free pass and lump all these children together.
“This is a classic case of government overreaching,” said Jeff Blackburn, lead counsel for the Innocence Project for Texas. “The amount of human and emotional damage [from those warrants] is way out of proportion to what the court said it was trying to accomplish.”
Still, around these parts of west Texas, folks say Walther will give a “fair shake,” Moore said. “When you come out of the court – win or lose – you know you had a fair trial.”
That’s all that anyone can ask–a fair trial.
In the Lone Star state, judges are elected to four-year terms. In 1992, Walther beat out favorite Robert Post for a seat on the state bench, becoming the first Republican elected to the job in that district. Since then, she has run unopposed. This is the last year of her fourth term and she is expected to run unchallenged again.
The judge has an exceptional record, according to west Texas lawyers. During the past 14 years, records show the Texas appellate court has reversed only a handful of her decisions.
As the only judge for the 51st District, which encompasses many small towns and a wide rural area, Walther has handled all kinds of cases, including child custody matters and criminal prosecutions.
Post, the San Angelo attorney Walther defeated for the judge’s job in 1992, said she will not be a “rubber stamp” for the state. “She’ll make them prove it up,” he said.
Another San Angelo attorney’s quote about Walther: “She doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”
No matter how she rules in the FLDS case, or cases, Walther can expect her decisions to be challenged on appeal. “I guarantee she’s been studying the law,” said Post. “She’s got the whole country looking at her.”
Another good sign–that she won’t just rubber stamp the state’s case; however, thus far she seems to have given the state pretty wide latitude in approving the initial warrants and the raid itself.
Deseret News (FLDS Child custody hearings begin today)
State officials said while much attention has been focused on the desire to “produce” Sarah — the mysterious child bride whose allegations of abuse prompted the raid early this month — that’s not the issue that will unfold today in court.
“I think some people have really focused on that (Sarah) but the reality is that her phone call is the reason we went out there, but it was not the reason for the removals,” said Greg Cunningham, spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
“The removals happened based on what we saw out there.”
Well, its no surprise Texas is backing away big time from the initial telephone call–since they can’t find the young girl, or her husband. FLDS attorneys have claimed all along the initial call was a hoax, and thus far the evidence appears to favor that claim:
Attorney Rod Parker, acting as spokesman for the Fundamentalist LDS Church, said Texas officials know there is no “Sarah.”
“How can they think they have her inside with the other children when what they really have is uncorroborated and refuted?” said Parker. “Do they think they have the wife of Dale Barlow? Because that’s who they say she is.”
The three-day raid on the YFZ Ranch was based on allegations from phone calls to a family shelter hotline from a 16-year-old girl named Sarah who said she was married to Barlow. The caller said she was pregnant and was being physically and sexually abused by the man who she said had six other wives.
Texas Rangers traveled to Utah last weekend to interview Barlow, 50, who lives in Colorado City, Ariz. He insists he doesn’t know the girl and has never been to the Texas ranch. He was not arrested.
“That is because she’s not the wife of Dale Barlow, because she doesn’t exist,” Parker said.
When the custody hearing gets under way today, attorneys with the legal affairs division of the state agency will argue to keep the children in state custody — regardless of whether they are able to prove the allegations they say were lodged by Sarah.
“What we are going to have to prove to the judge is that these children have been abused and are in danger of further abuse if they are returned to their homes,” Cunningham said. “In doing that, it will not just be CPS trying to prove this, it will be a lot of parties in the courthouse.”
The relatively small Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo cannot handle the anticipated crowd, so in addition to the setting where the action will unfold, authorities have set up a teleconferencing site at City Hall to accommodate interested parties, mainly the media. The hearing is expected to last all day and perhaps spill into Friday.
Although sexual abuse is front and center at the case that led to the raid, Cunningham would not comment specifically on whether any medical exams have been performed to determine evidence of sexual activity among the young FLDS women and girls.
“Generally, that evidence is something we would secure as part of our investigation,” he said.
The point about the medical examinations is also critical. The results of those tests should provide some very relevant and important evidence in the case.
The Grits For Breakfast Blog also has a good post today on the hearing and the troubling questions that remain unanswered in this case.
Paradox over at Enduring to the End has a good post as well.
Dave over at DMI hosts a list of great links as well.
ECS over at Feminist Mormon Housewives has a thought provoking post on some of these issues.
CNN’s coverage includes quotes from some of the FLDS women. Larry King last night had fascinating video of the FLDS ranch which they toured along with interviews of several FLDS mothers:
The YFZ ranch is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FDLS), a Mormon offshoot that practices polygamy. Followers say the accusations of sexual abuse are false.
“This, what is happening to them, is the worst abuse that they have ever had,” said Esther, one of three FDLS mothers interviewed by CNN’s Larry King on Wednesday night. “I just don’t understand why you would want to just come right into our community and do this.”
The often-tearful mothers pleaded to be granted access to their children.
“Our children need us,” said one of the women, only identified as Sally, “and they have been torn from us illegally with officers with guns.
Now that we have arrived in the court room, my hope is that the issues can be narrowed to specific abuse allegations, supportable by specific evidence–if it exists. And, if it exists, then those children should absolutely be removed from their homes and placed in protective care. The parents, should also be prosecuted, again if there is evidence of specific child abuse; however, if the evidence is insufficient to establish abuse for each of these 400 plus children, then the court should equalize this playing field and send these children back home to their mother and fathers. And, Texas should go back to the drawing board and figure out how to deal on a case by case basis with any abuse allegations without the wholesale disruption of these families–not to mention the ridiculous tying up of state resources in trying to prove an unprovable case.
By the way–does anyone else find it ironic that the county where this court house sits is called Tom Green County?
Update 4/17/08 7:23 a.m. Brooke Adams of the Tribune reports that the hearing is now underway.