FLDS challenge: What to do with sect's 416 children?
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SAN ANGELO, Texas - As the 416 children removed from an FLDS ranch began coping with the loss of many mothers who had accompanied them, officials continued to debate whether being in state custody is harming them and how to hold fair hearings on their future.

Women and children who have been staying at Fort Concho were moved Monday by bus to the San Angelo Coliseum; others remained at the Wells Fargo Pavilion.

While 139 FLDS women had been caring for the children, as of Monday afternoon, only mothers with small children were being allowed to stay.

Three FLDS women wrote to Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Friday, saying the children were being traumatized. The shelter at Fort Concho was crowded, as cell phone pictures from inside revealed over the weekend.

But Sandra Guerra-Cantu, a physician with the Texas Department of Health Services, said Monday: "In general, children are very resilient in adapting to change. These children are adjusting to their new environment."

Asked about the children's mental health, Guerra-Cantu said people were made available for the children to talk to, and the same service was offered to the caregivers.

Perry's spokeswoman, Allison Castle, said the governor had not yet received the FLDS women's letter, so he would not respond to it.

But the governor said he has "full faith and confidence" in the Texas Department of Public Safety and Child Protective Services, and would leave the matter in their hands. Perry added that officials are doing all they can to ensure the children are safe, Castle said.

Guerra-Cantu said the children were given physical examinations over three days. While she would not discuss any chronic conditions, births or pregnancies, she said 20 kids had quickly recovered from mild cases of chicken pox.

"This population is definitely very healthy," the doctor said.

Guerra-Cantu said 20 doctors and 100 nurses were on hand, as well as other caregivers.

Earlier on Monday, about three dozen guardian ad litem attorneys, plus lawyers representing the state and FLDS parents, crowded into a courthouse to plan how to safeguard both children's and parents' legal rights during a Thursday hearing.

Texas law officers began raiding the compound of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on the evening of April 3, after a family violence shelter received calls from a 16-year-old who claimed her husband was physically and sexually abusing her.

In court Monday, a representative of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services told Judge Barbara Walther the state plans to handle all 416 children as a single case.

Evidence has surfaced that there was a systematic process at the ranch of sexually exploiting and abusing children, the state maintains.

Attorneys representing FLDS parents questioned how adults' rights can be protected during a mass hearing, including how to decide who can question witnesses and possible time limits on testimony.

The judge said she was aware the tactic raises both constitutional issues and a logistical challenge.

"If we give everyone five minutes that would [still] be 70 hours of testimony," she said, vowing to seek a way to efficiently manage that aspect of Thursday's proceedings.

"We need to handle these cases as individual cases because we're dealing with individual families," Walther said. "We need to recognize that, and the court wants to respect that."

Walther appointed two coordinating guardian ad litems - Randall Stout and Carmen Dusek - to help make that happen.

Other issues raised in court:

* The judge was told that determining parentage of the children could prove difficult because the sect's adults have been providing inconsistent and inaccurate information. Stout said women have changed the names they are giving officials, and younger children are being passed from adult to adult. He suggested creating a medical file with photographs for each child, so children can be identified regardless of what name they give or who is providing their care.

* There are 20 to 30 women who claim to be adults over age 18 but are not believed by the state. "Some of these women are providing birth certificates and IDs and are being told they are lying," said Criselda Paz from Legal Aid of North Texas. Dusek suggested a special master be appointed to resolve each case.

* Dusek also advised handling the children's cases in these groupings: mothers who are ages 12 to 17; teenage girls who are not mothers in the same age range; girls and boys ages 5 to 11, in two separate gender groups; boys and girls from birth to age 4, again in separate groups; and children with special needs.

Attorney Gary Banks, representing Texas child welfare officials, said the state will try to pare down its witness list for Thursday and will set up videoconferencing for interested teens and adults in the shelters.

After the hearing, Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney representing the FLDS families, said women in the shelters have felt the system is biased against them. He also questioned how the rights of parents and children can realistically be protected in a mass hearing.

"Just because there are logistical issues doesn't mean [the state] can violate the rights of 500 women and children," Parker said.

brooke@sltrib.com