Two men excommunicated by a polygamist sect went to a west Texas courtroom Tuesday to offer themselves as guardians for their children, who were seized from a church-run ranch, if the state deems their custodial parents unfit.
"If we can establish I'm not guilty of those things, why can't I have my children?" asked Arthur Barlow, 59, who drove from southern Utah to seek custody of five of his children, who lived at the Yearning For Zion ranch in nearby Eldorado.
Barlow and Frank Johnson, another father seeking custody of his children, were both excommunicated from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
It was not clear how many other relatives of the more than 460 children have asked to be considered alternatives to foster care. Child Protective Services typically looks for relatives in custody cases.
Second day of hearings
Hearings for the children entered their second day in the five courtrooms of the Tom Green County courthouse. The hearings, designed to set up procedures for the parents to regain custody of their children, are expected to last three weeks.
Barlow testified he was excommunicated four years ago and had never been to the YFZ ranch, where all the children were removed last month and placed in foster care facilities around the state after agency argued underage girls were being forced into marriages and sex.
Barlow said he entered into a spiritual marriage 15 years ago with Esther Jessop Barlow, now 35, whom he has known since childhood. He said that she is a fit mother, but that if the state rules otherwise, he wants custody of the children he hasn't seen since he was forced from the church.
Barlow said he didn't fight for custody because he didn't want the children used as "pawns."
"I chose to stay away and let them have a stable life," said Barlow, who has 12 other children with another woman. His oldest offspring from that relationship is 37.
Child welfare spokesman Patrick Crimmins said that his agency has asked the FLDS parents to name relatives who could take the children, but that all will have to be vetted before they could get custody.
FLDS spokesman Rod Parker said the 168 mothers in the case want their children but would consider relatives an acceptable alternative.
"Anything is more acceptable than foster care or non-relative adoption," he said.
Case marked by confusion
Five judges began holding hearings Monday on all the children in the unwieldy custody case, which has been marked by confusion over identities and ages of children and parents.
When the hearings resumed Tuesday, the welfare agency acknowledged that another three young mothers are actually 18 or older. That acknowledgment, following earlier admissions about four other young mothers, means the state has no more than 24 underage mothers in state custody, not 31, as officials initially said. About 20 others may still be reclassified.
Parker said the final number of underage mothers will likely be closer to five or six, though he acknowledged that some of the young mothers apparently were pregnant while younger than 17 — Texas' age of consent.
"We've always known there are one or two or three examples out there," Parker said. "What I've always denied is that there are (dozens) out there."
The judges have not allowed much discussion of the validity of the state's decision to take the children, but they have focused the discussions on state-drafted plans outlining the steps parents must follow to get their children back. The child welfare agency has said it hopes to reunify the families by April 2009.
The parents have complained that the plans, which call for safe living environments, parenting classes and other experts' recommendations, are too vague.
The children were removed en masse 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 caller has never been found, and authorities are investigating whether the calls were a hoax.
Costs expected to top $30 million
In Austin on Tuesday, state lawmakers began adding up the costs related to the raid and began trying to figure out where to find the $30 million the case is expected to cost over the next year.
Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins told the Senate Finance Committee that it will cost about $1.7 million a month to care for the children. The initial raid cost an estimated $5.3 million, and at least $2.2 million will be needed to help the local courts handle legal proceedings for each child.
One lawmaker questioned whether the state could make the adults left behind on the 1,700-acre ranch — valued at $20.5 million — foot the state's bill.
"I would encourage you to aggressively pursue any of those assets to fund this," said Republican Sen. Bob Deuell of Greenville.
The FLDS, which teaches that polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.
Sect leader Warren Jeffs, who is revered as a prophet, was sentenced to prison in Utah for being an accomplice to rape in arranging a marriage of a 14-year-old follower to her 19-year-old cousin. He awaits trial in Arizona, where he is charged as an accomplice with four counts each of incest and sexual conduct.
Court documents listed 10 children of Jeffs living at the ranch with several mothers. Another mother, 34-year-old Monica Jessop, acknowledged Tuesday in court that all five of her children were fathered by Jeffs.