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Sect case becomes a legal scramble

Lawyers flock to Texas city to represent more than 500 children, women and men. It's a logistical nightmare.

April 20, 2008|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

SAN ANGELO, TEXAS — Attorney Donna Broom had no idea what to expect when she threw her bags in her green Chevy Tahoe on Wednesday and set off on an eight-hour drive from Houston to San Angelo.

She would miss her sons' baseball games that evening to represent a child seized from a polygamist compound. She did not know whether her client was a boy or a girl, a teenager or a baby.

Whoever her client was, she had one question: Would she be able to get him or her a fair hearing in a room full of hundreds of attorneys representing more than 500 children, mothers and fathers?

It was a question that consumed all the attorneys who traveled last week across the Lone Star state to San Angelo, a West Texas town of 100,000, to represent children in the largest custody case in U.S. history.

Ever since Texas officials took 416 children into temporary state custody, saying they were physically and sexually abused or at risk of abuse at a ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the state's legal community has struggled to cope with the immense task of coordinating legal representation for the children. State law requires a hearing in such cases within 14 days.

After hearing two days of testimony, the judge ruled Friday that all 416 remain in the state's custody while officials investigate whether they were at risk at the YFZ -- Yearning for Zion -- Ranch operated by the FLDS, a sect that broke away from the Mormon Church in the 1930s. Its members believe in divinely inspired polygamous marriage involving underage girls.

Between now and June 5, the court will hold individual hearings to update each child's status, but setting individual hearings does not mean they will prove to be less complex.

"Judges from El Paso to Beaumont and all points in between will have to help out," said Guy Choate, a local attorney who helped coordinate the mass hearing.

Already, the unprecedented scale of the case has led to a morass of practical challenges for court officials and local attorneys.

"We're a town of about 80 lawyers, and all of a sudden we need 416," Choate said. "What everyone keeps saying is, how do we do this logistically?"

At the beginning of last week, mass e-mails were sent out to attorneys appealing for volunteers. There was a run on paper as court officials sought to make thousands of copies so each attorney would have all of the filings. A 3 1/2 -hour training session was set up in a local bank to train attorneys on family code laws.

As attorneys from across the state signed up to offer their services for free, hotels booked up in the college town of San Angelo. E-mails went out appealing for locals to offer spare rooms, sofas and cots.

And as the lawyers poured in, so did more and more questions: Was it fair to lump all these children in a mass hearing? Did boys and babies carry the same risk of sexual abuse as pregnant teenagers and young mothers? Did there not have to be greater evidence of abuse before so many children were taken from their parents? Were the children being unfairly targeted because of their religion?

While the state claims that older men appear to have impregnated more than 20 girls as young as 15 -- a violation of Texas law -- officials have struggled to identify which children were abused. Lawyers for the parents and some children have argued that a few teen pregnancies do not justify removing all children.

Patrick E. O'Fiel, an attorney from Kerrville, about 150 miles from San Angelo, felt increasingly uncomfortable as he stood in line to pick up a manila file folder with details about his client, a 10-year-old boy.

"Each child is unique," he said. "Just because one person in a block commits sexual assault, it doesn't mean their neighbor is going to commit assault. We need more evidence."

By the time the hearing began Thursday, attorneys walked into the courtroom with a long list of grievances. Some said they had still not gotten to see their clients; others said their clients would barely speak. A few said the state had refused to accept their clients' identifications.

With only 300 seats in state District Judge Barbara L. Walther's courtroom, hundreds of attorneys had to view the proceedings on a grainy closed-circuit television screen in a City Hall auditorium. Attorneys who wanted to object had to get up from their seats, walk across their row, down an aisle and up to a lectern to wait for the district clerk to catch the judge's attention.

"It's crazy, like you're in a movie theater in the back on the 23rd row, except you're representing real clients," said John Kennedy, regional counsel for Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, representing 54 mothers. "By the time you got down there, the witness has testified."

Though some attorneys complained about the format of the hearing, others groaned at attorneys who got up to repeat objections that had already been made.

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