Authorities have removed 416 children from a West Texas polygamist compound in the past week, in response to a 16-year-old girl there who reported that her 50-year-old husband beat and raped her.
The children, and 139 women who voluntarily left the compound near Eldorado, are now housed at two sites in San Angelo, about 40 miles from the ranch and 200 miles west of San Antonio.
Here are some questions put Thursday to Marleigh Meisner, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, and John J. Sampson, a University of Texas law professor who teaches the Children's Rights Clinic, which provides legal representation for abused and neglected children in Travis County. Sampson is not involved in the case.
Q: What's the next legal step?
MM: April 17, a full adversarial hearing, 10 a.m., in the Tom Green County Courthouse. At that point we will make a recommendation to a judge. There will be attorneys appointed or even perhaps have already have been appointed to represent the children.
Q: For each child individually or as a group?
MM: Normally, it's each child individually but the judge is making a decision how she's going to do that.
JS: You have X number of mothers and Y children and Z number of fathers, presumed fathers, alleged fathers, unknown fathers. All of the fathers are entitled to service. All mothers are entitled to service. All children are entitled to representation.
Q. Sounds like a crowded courtroom.
JS: It would actually be more or less a crowded stadium. I've never seen a case tried in a stadium but this might be a first.
Q: What if the judge decides not to grant custody?
MM: This is all to do with temporary custody. If the judge decided the children needed to be returned, then the children will be returned. It's ultimately always the judge's decision.
JS: (State officials have) already made something of a case to the judge when they convinced the judge we need an order not to investigate but to take possession of the children. This kind of gets into speculation because since this is unprecedented... Since there's smoke here, we suspect fire. And so the court is almost always going to say: 'Yes I realize the statute says the parent should walk out with the child unless it would be dangerous. I've already had a preliminary determination that there's a danger to the child and we've had a hearing there's a danger to the child, and I find there's a continuing danger to the child so naturally the state is going to be continued in the foreseeable future.'
Q. How long is that?
JS: "Foreseeable future" is supposed to be one year. You can get an extension for six months, then the case needs to be decided. Each case is an individual case, however many children there are. I read in the paper there's a whole lot of problems in identification. That does not help the parents get the children back when the children are not identified.
Q: Is it possible the 139 women could be separated from their kids?
MM: That's a decision that's to be made later and it's a decision that's not been made yet.
JS: The reluctance of a parent to cooperate doesn't facilitate the parents' situation. The only time a parent has a chance of prevailing is when they make a case. Now they have a presumption when they make a case that parents have a right to have and raise children, but that presumption is subject to trumping if there is a serious danger to the physical or emotional well-being of the child.
Q: If the judge says the state can't continue temporary custody, will the women be free to go?
MM: They've been free to go always. They came because they asked to come. They've stayed with us but are free at any time to leave. They are here on their own choice.
Q: Have any departed?
MM: To my knowledge, none have left.
Q: Where would they go?
MM: I have no idea.
Q: How much interest have you received from the public regarding foster care or adoption?
MM: Have a lot of people come forward saying: Hey, we'd like to foster these children or we'd like to adopt these children? Yes. However, it's way too soon to be looking at adoption issues. These children are still in temporary care of the state of Texas. What we are doing is to try to find the best temporary accommodations for these children to keep them safe, to make sure that all their medical and emotional needs are being met. And when we go to court on the 17th, a judge will give us further direction as to what needs to happen with these children's lives.
Q: If the women are free to go, is it reasonable to assume they'd be able to function in the real world outside the compound?
MM: I don't think I can address that.
JS: Some people obviously were coerced. The mothers followed their children but they didn't report the child abuse. Those who had reason to believe there was child abuse — and that's also criminal — and to that extent everybody in the whole commune could allegedly be charged with various crimes, including not reporting child abuse.
Q. So just because they're free to go now doesn't absolve them of any future charges?
JS. That is correct. That's for sure... It's an incredible precedent-setting situation, particularly since the last big raid like this was 50 years ago. And that all collapsed legally. The law is a lot more complicated now, and the rights of parents are significantly more protected...