SAN ANGELO, Texas - Children from a polygamist sect were the only subjects on the docket yesterday 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 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 cannot 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, contended that the plans were "so vague and so broad" they would be impossible to satisfy.
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.
The parents say they are being persecuted for their religion, which includes beliefs that polygamy brings glorification in heaven.
At one hearing, attorneys complained that the Book of Mormon was confiscated from some of the children at a foster facility. State Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said officials had not been able to confirm whether the members' holy text was taken from them.
The hearings are scheduled to run for three weeks, and none of the judges would humor any discussion about whether the initial grounds for removing the children in a raid last month were valid.
The state acknowledged yesterday that two more sect members they listed as minors are actually adults.
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.