Wednesday, August 20, 2008

SAN ANGELO, Texas | A Texas judge on Thursday order back into foster car a 14-year-old girl who purportedly married to jailed polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs with her parents’ blessing at age 12.

District Judge Barbara Walther said there was “uncontroverted evidence of the underage marriage” and that the girl’s mother, Barbara Jessop, refused to guarantee the girl’s safety.

The girl, shown in photographs submitted to the court kissing Jeffs, must immediately enter foster care.

Her 11-year-old brother, whom Texas child welfare authorities also wanted placed in foster care, will be allowed to stay with his mother but will have to undergo psychological evaluation in the next month.

The girl’s case marked the first effort by Child Protective Services (CPS) to retake custody of a child who lived at the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado before the April raid that resulted in 440 children being placed in foster care for six weeks.

The Texas Supreme Court later struck down that early custody decision, saying the state failed to show any more than a handful of teenage girls might have been abused.

The children were returned to their parents in June. Since then, the child welfare agency has asked for custody of seven children, including the 14-year-old girl and her brother. It sought the dismissal of cases involving 76 children, including nine who have turned 18. The rest of the cases remain under investigation.

Hearings on the other five children the agency still wants in foster care were scheduled to resume Tuesday.

Judge Walther said she felt she had to place the girl in foster care because Mrs. Jessop “was unable to provide assurances that she’d be able to protect the child in the future.”

On Monday, Mrs. Jessop refused to answer roughly 50 questions asked by attorneys for Child Protective Services, including what constituted abuse, the names of her children and her relationship with their father.

“I stand on the Fifth [Amendment],” she said repeatedly.

Her attorney, Gonzalo Rios, said she was exercising her right against self-incrimination because of the continuing criminal investigation. Two of her husband’s sons have been indicted on charges of sexual assault of a child, as has Jeffs.

Invoking the Fifth Amendment can protect Mrs. Jessop in a criminal case. But previous court rulings have found that negative inferences can be made in civil cases, like the child custody case, if she refuses to answer.

Mr. Rios said after the hearing that Mrs. Jessop’s decision to invoke the Fifth Amendment probably hurt her custody case, but he plans to argue on appeal that the welfare agency didn’t make a reasonable effort to keep the family together, as required under Texas law.

He also said Mrs. Jessop was being treated differently from other parents from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). All the other parents were given a chance to keep their children if they complied with agency requirements.

“It’s fundamentally unfair,” Mr. Rios said. “She’s the only parent they wouldn’t negotiate with.”

Mrs. Jessop is married to Fredrick “Merril” Jessop, who according to court documents blessed several underage marriages. He did not attend the hearing and has not provided a court-ordered DNA sample.

FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said no marriages have been conducted for two years, and the church has said it will refuse to bless any unions involving underage girls.

The FLDS believes polygamy brings glory in heaven. It is a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

Jeffs, convicted as an accomplice to rape in Utah and awaiting trial on similar charges in Arizona, was indicted along with four followers in Texas last month on charges of sexual assault of a child.

One of the followers also was indicted on a bigamy charge and a sixth man was indicted on three misdemeanor counts of failing to report child abuse.

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