SAN ANGELO, Tex. — Negotiations for the state’s release of more than 460 children who were removed from a polygamist sect in April broke down Friday in a scene of chaos and bitterness in a courtroom in this West Texas city.
Lawyers for the families said the judge overseeing the release lacked authority to impose restrictions on it, and the judge, in disagreement, ended the proceedings and walked out of the courtroom.
The lawyers jumped to their feet, uncertain whether the proceedings had actually been adjourned, and some later vowed to bypass the judge, Barbara Walther of State District Court, and carry this new turn in the case directly to an appeals court.
“This is crazy,” said Gary Peak, a lawyer who represents two boys from the sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mr. Peak said the next step would be for families’ lawyers to each file individual motions over the weekend to vacate the orders, issued by Judge Walther last month, that authorized state custody of the children.
“No one knows what’s going to happen,” Mr. Peak said.
Reuniting of the children with their parents early next week had been expected after the Texas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state’s seizure had been overly broad and was not supported by evidence of sexual abuse.
In fact, an agreement to release the children Monday had seemed within reach earlier Friday. But the hearing before Judge Walther, which was convened precisely to arrange for the release, snagged over the ground rules.
The hearing was partly overshadowed, meanwhile, by a new development in the continuing criminal investigation of the sect.
Investigators said family marriage records seized in the April raid of the group’s compound, the Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado, Tex., suggested that the sect’s leader, Warren S. Jeffs, had “spiritually” wed at least four under-age girls, two of them 14 at the time, the other two 12.
Mr. Jeffs, 52, is serving 10 years to life as an accomplice to rape for forcing a 14-year-old girl in Utah to marry and have sex with an older man against her will.
Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the Texas attorney general’s office, said a warrant to obtain DNA samples from Mr. Jeffs was signed on Thursday by a judge in Arizona, where Mr. Jeffs is in jail awaiting trial on other charges related to under-age marriage. The children taken in the raid in Texas have already given DNA samples.
The day’s developments underlined a tangle of questions that remain unresolved in one of the largest child custody cases in American history.
State child protection officials, in justifying the seizure of the children from the group, said a pervasive culture of abusive sex with under-age youths had endangered girls and boys alike — girls groomed as victims, boys as predators. But the State Supreme Court, in upholding the ruling of a lower appeals court, said the claim was too sweeping. The state could not prove that every child was endangered, the Supreme Court said in a divided opinion, adding that this was the prerequisite needed to take all the children as a group.
One question remaining in the criminal case is whether the state’s justification for the raid may yet be at least partly substantiated after the children’s return, which, lawyers and state officials have said, is inevitable given the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Mr. Strickland, the spokesman for Attorney General Greg Abbott, emphasized that the criminal inquiry was proceeding on its own track.
“The criminal investigation is separate from the custody case,” he said. “Our office is handling the criminal side of things, and Child Protective Services is handling the other portions of this case.”
The attorney general was named special prosecutor in the criminal case last month by Judge Walther, who is overseeing the custody case as well. Mr. Strickland and a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, Lisa Block, both said evidence that was still being collected would dictate what charges, if any, were brought against members of the group.
“It is a multifaceted investigation, involving a lot of evidence,” Ms. Block said.
At the hearing on Friday to work out the release agreement, Judge Walther said she wanted the children, who are spread out all across Texas, mostly in group foster care, to be returned in an orderly fashion. She specifically rejected an appeal by the parents to allow the release this weekend.
“I don’t want to issue an order that would create more chaos than has already happened for these children,” Judge Walther said. “It’s going to take a little bit of logistics to organize.”
Still, plans for the release had seemed to be moving toward resolution in her courtroom. Then came the snag over conditions.
Under one provision, the parents would have had to stay in close touch with state child protection officials and could have been subjected to visits by inspectors and state caseworkers at any time.
Further, in the absence of results from recently administered DNA tests, families were asked to sign affidavits agreeing to take from the state only their own children. They would also have had to take parenting classes.
Finally, after several hours of discussion, one group of lawyers representing families said that the court lacked authority to impose any restrictions and that Judge Walther’s only choice was simply to vacate her April order granting custody to the state.
Judge Walther then read parts of the Supreme Court’s decision that she said did give her authority to place restrictions to provide for the safety of the children. The impasse could not be resolved, and she left the courtroom shortly afterward.
Members of the sect, which split off decades ago from the main branch of Mormonism, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, after the Mormons disavowed polygamy, have historically been based in Utah and Arizona, and arrived in Texas only five years ago, when the Yearning for Zion ranch was founded.
Now there are questions about what will be left of the self-contained ranch community even if the events surrounding the state’s intervention are resolved.
One member of the church, Willie Jessop, a contractor and rancher in Utah who came to Texas after his sister’s children were taken into custody, said hope and anxiety were both running high among the families in about equal measure.
“The parents have been on this roller coaster ride now for so long,” Mr. Jessop said. “They’ve been told so many times that they could get their children back: if they go to the shelters they could get their children back, if they submit DNA they could get their children back.
“There have been so many conditions already, and still they do not have their children back.”
Gretel C. Kovach reported from San Angelo, and Kirk Johnson from Denver.
Deal to Return Children to Sect Breaks Down - NYTimes.com