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Polygamy case poses 'logistical nightmare' for courts

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Written on 3:20 PM by yahoo

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SAN ANGELO, Texas (CNN) -- Dozens of lawyers squeezed into a West Texas courtroom Monday as a judge started to sort out how to handle the custody battles of 416 children taken from a polygamist sect's ranch in central Texas.
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A woman known as Monica of the Yearning For Zion community says officials won't let her see her children.
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Since each child must have representation in court, an overflow crowd packed the Tom Green County courthouse as Judge Barbara Walther tried to marshal attorneys from across the state for the case.

A custody hearing for the children is set for Thursday.

Meanwhile, authorities moved the children from a crowded shelter at the Fort Concho historic site Monday afternoon in a caravan of 19 buses.

They were taken to a larger facility at the San Angelo Coliseum, Assistant Police Chief Kevin Holloway said.

Some of the children's mothers complained to Gov. Rick Perry that the children were getting sick in the crowded fort, The Associated Press reported. About 20 children had a mild case of chicken pox, Dr. Sandra Guerra-Cantu with the state Health Department told AP.

Police raided the 1,900-acre Yearning for Zion, or YFZ, ranch in Eldorado after receiving a report of sexual abuse.

Authorities announced April 7 they had taken custody of the children in the raid, which lasted nearly a week. Video Watch a sect leader's attorney say the tipster made false accusations »

The case, which was moved from an Eldorado courthouse to a larger facility in nearby San Angelo, probably represents the largest family law case in the history of Texas, said attorney Tom Vick, a director of the State Bar of Texas.
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"It's probably the largest family law case in the country if you look at it as one big problem," said Vick, the former chairman of the Texas Bar's family law section.

Walther and the lawyers who gathered in her courtroom split up the 400-plus children into several categories, including teenage mothers, boys and girls of different age groups, and children with special needs. But because of confusion about birth records, authorities suspect 20 to 30 of the people seized may be adults.

Several of the children have given investigators differing stories about who their parents are, attorneys told Walther.

Fearing that members of the sect remaining on the ranch would try to influence their testimony, the judge Sunday ordered mobile phones confiscated from the 100-plus mothers who accompanied children to the shelter.

Vick said he expected some of the children to be reluctant to open up to lawyers.

"Given the background these kids have had and the culture they've been raised in, they would be afraid," he said. "So it's not surprising, and certainly they have only one experience, and they do want to go home. That's not unusual at all."

Though there have been only 123 cases filed thus far by the state's Child Protective Services Division, about 416 children -- most of them girls -- are included in the custody battles.

That number is fluid, however, Vick said. Since the raid, another child has been born, one turned 18, and a woman from the compound reportedly was in labor Sunday, he said.

As of midnight Sunday, Vick had secured about 250 lawyers willing to work on the case pro bono. He was receiving two to three e-mails an hour from attorneys wanting to help, he said.

The judge will decide Monday which cases are heard first, how the children will be represented and logistical matters. The logistics of the cases are important, Vick said, because even simple introductions could take hours with a case this large.

But there are logistical concerns outside the courtroom, Vick said. See how events have unfolded since the raid »

San Angelo, about 40 miles north of Eldorado, has a population of almost 90,000, but it will be pressed to accommodate the interested parties -- attorneys, journalists, church members, activists -- who are converging there.

Vick said he took the last hotel room at a popular chain last week. Volunteers have opened up their homes for other attorneys. A local Episcopal church is arranging dinner for the attorneys Wednesday night, he said.

"It is a logistical nightmare, but it is working out well," he said.

On March 31, police received a call from a 16-year-old named Sarah, who said she had been choked and forced to have sex with her "spiritual husband," Dale Barlow, 50. She said she had an 8-month-old child with Barlow.

Barlow, who met with authorities over the weekend and was not arrested, is a member of a rogue branch of the Mormon church that runs the Texas ranch. He is serving three years of probation after pleading no contest last year to charges of conspiracy to have sex with a minor.

Barlow's attorney said he had not been to Texas in more than three decades.

The ranch was run by Warren Steed Jeffs, the imprisoned founder of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which bought the ranch four years ago. See a map of towns where Jeffs' followers congregate »

Church members began building dormitories and a temple. Hundreds of Jeffs' followers moved from Arizona and Utah as authorities stepped up investigations into the church and its practices.
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Jeffs was convicted last year in Utah on two counts of being an accomplice to rape, charges related to a marriage he performed in 2001. Jeffs also faces trial in Arizona on eight charges of sexual conduct with a minor, incest and conspiracy.

FLDS members practice polygamy. In 1890, the church split with the mainstream Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which denounced polygamy.

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