- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2008

SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) — A 6-year-old son of polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs did not suffer physical or sexual abuse while living with his mother at the group’s Texas ranch, a child welfare case worker testified yesterday.

Child Protective Services case worker Joni Manske testified during one of several hearings in which more than 400 individual cases are being considered.

The massive custody cases got under way yesterday in all five Tom Green County courtrooms, with parents learning what they must do to regain custody of the children. The hearings are expected to last three weeks.

Texas authorities have 463 children in foster care, taken because of charges that members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints were forcing underage girls into marriage and sex at the sect’s compound.

Members of the renegade Mormon sect, which teaches that polygamy brings glorification in heaven, have denied any abuse and said they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

The attorney for the boy’s mother, Sharon Barlow, objected to the state plan for her to get the boy back, saying it wasn’t clear enough. Ms. Barlow, 34, must take parenting classes, find a safe living environment and undergo a psychological evaluation, according to the plan.

“This plan is so vague and so broad that my client has no idea what she can do now,” attorney Donna Guion said.

State District Judge Barbara Walther agreed that the plan should be more specific and asked Ms. Guion to provide ideas on how that might be done.

Judge Walther asked Ms. Barlow whether she understood her parental rights were subject to termination if she did not comply with the plan. Ms. Barlow softly replied “yes” but did not testify otherwise.

The boy is one of 10 in state custody thought to be a child of Jeffs, the sect’s jailed leader and prophet. Jeffs was convicted in Utah of being an accomplice to rape in the marriage of a 14-year-old to a 19-year-old.

Authorities have not identified the mothers of more than 100 children.

Officials have been trying to group siblings together with their mothers as the custody case moves forward. So far, 168 mothers and 69 fathers have been identified in court documents, though DNA test results are two to four weeks away.

Child welfare officials have complained that women and children have given different names and lied about ages. The agency also has struggled with identification of children and women because many have similar names, and some of the young women, who don’t wear makeup and braid their hair, look much younger than their actual age.

As many as two dozen of the girls held in custody may be adults; authorities are still trying determine their actual ages.

The children were removed from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado 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 girl has never been found, and authorities are investigating whether the call was a hoax.

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