Texas Supreme Court advisory
April 16, 2008
Contact: Osler McCarthy, staff attorney for public information 512.463.1441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Assistance Pours in to Help Beleaguered Court Staff in YFZ Ranch Child-Protection Cases
Teams of volunteer lawyers have crowded into San Angelo for the custody hearing Thursday concerning 416 children taken from a polygamist church's ranch in nearby Eldorado in Schleicher County.
Overwhelmed court staff in Schleicher and Tom Green counties have been assisted by Carl Reynolds, executive director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, in what is being called the largest child-custody case in U.S. history.
Other resources are being provided by the Texas Supreme Court's recently created Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families, which was formed to help channel resources and train lawyers, child-protection social workers and other staff involved with courts handling child-protection cases, and by the Texas Access to Justice Commission. The Access to Justice Commission and the State Bar of Texas have appealed for qualified family lawyers across Texas to volunteer their time to represent parents and children in the case.
Earlier this week the Supreme Court approved local rules allowing electronic court filings for the Schleicher County district court to handle the needs of the many attorneys assisting in the cases.
"Last year Schleicher County had 56 civil cases filed," Reynolds said. "Last week more than twice that number of cases were filed ... pertaining to the children of YFZ Ranch" YFZ stands for Yearning for Zion.
Reynolds said the three-person Schleicher County District Clerk's Office were assisted by the Tom Green County District Clerk, with its larger staff, but even that was not enough. OCA has assisted with computers,copiers, scanners and video-conferencing technology and money for temporary support staff."
A video feed will connect the courtroom with a room in the nearby San Angelo Coliseum. Access to that facility will be restricted to mothers of the children.
Law-enforcement officers working with child-protection workers took the children living at the YFZ Ranch after a family shelter in San Angelo reported a 16-year-old girl's calls to the shelter's crisis telephone line. The teenager said she was sexually abused by her 49-year-old "husband."
Convicted polygamist Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded the YFZ Ranch. The church is not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church, which abandoned its polygamist beliefs in the late 1800s.
In response to the shelter's alert, District Judge Barbara Walther issued a search and arrest warrant and granted the Department of Family and Protective Services temporary legal custody of the children. The Thursday hearing will be conducted under Texas Family Code Section 262.201 to determine if the children should remain in the state's custody.
In the call the girl said she was living at the YFZ Ranch. The shelter reported the call to the Child Protective Services hotline. Agency investigators contacted law enforcement and began working closely with the Department of Public Safety, the Schleicher County sheriff's office, the courts and other local officials.
Judge Dean Rucker of Midland, presiding judge of the Seventh Administrative Judicial Region, which includes Schleicher and Tom Green counties, appointed Senior Judge John J. Specia of Bexar County to assist Walthers with the proceedings. Emergency reimbursement has been assured for state and local agencies.
Tom Vick of Weatherford, a State Bar director and former Family Law Section chair, has been charged with listing qualified volunteers for appointment as attorneys ad litem. Another State Bar director, Guy Choate of San Angelo, has been coordinating other volunteer efforts.
San Angelo attorneys Carmen Symes Dusek and Randol L. Stout have been appointed by the court as the coordinating attorneys ad litem for the children. Since their initial appointment, Judge Walther has appointed additional attorneys ad litem for the children.
Parents from YFZ Ranch seeking legal representation who can afford a lawyer should contact the State Bar of Texas Lawyer Referral Service, which will direct them to a lawyer who will charge a small fee for a consultation. Parents who are unable to afford a lawyer may contact Legal Services of Northwest Texas, toll free at (800) 284-5180 or (325) 653-6982.
Otherwise, parents must notify the court that they are indigent and request the court to appoint a lawyer.