FLDS hearings: Texas' case weakens as moms turn out adults

Only 17 women, out of original 26, are left in the state's disputed-age group
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SAN ANGELO, Texas - An underpinning of the state's case for taking hundreds of FLDS children into custody continued to weaken Tuesday as officials acknowledged four more women whose ages were disputed are adults - including one who is 27.

Still to come: The state was prepared to admit one additional mother was an adult, but her hearing was postponed. Four women had been deemed adults before Tuesday; other women's hearings have yet to come up in court.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has maintained a "pervasive pattern" of underage marriages justified removing all children from the YFZ Ranch and their parents, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

It specifically claimed that 31 girls between the ages of 14 and 17 were pregnant, mothers or both - a tally that originally included 26 women whose ages were in dispute.

One case that supports the state's claim was postponed Tuesday: that of 17-year-old Suzanne Johnson, who is eight months pregnant and has a 16-month-old child.

But now, 17 women are left in the disputed-age group, and one attorney expressed outrage Tuesday about the state's tactics in dealing with the mothers.

Andrea Sloan, who represents Leona Allred, said the state was given official documents showing the woman to be 27 the day it raided the YFZ Ranch. On Tuesday, more than six weeks later, Allred's case was dismissed without the state receiving any additional information, Sloan told a Texas judge.

Sloan was informed of the impending decision Monday evening - but the state continued to tell Allred she could not participate in hearings on Tuesday for her two children because she was a minor. Allred turns 28 on June 2.

Allred had been warned, Sloan said, that as an adult she would not be allowed to remain at the Fort Worth shelter with her two children, including a 15-month-old - which a state attorney confirmed during the hearing.

But that apparently did not sit well with the judge hearing her case.

"For a month, six weeks, this mother has been with these children in this facility," he said, resetting the hearing for May 27 to give CPS time to work out an alternative.

Other judges also pressed CPS to accommodate the young mothers who have been in state custody for more than a month - something that one FLDS spokesman said was encouraging.

"Inch by inch and day by day, the truth is starting to come out about what is really happening here," said Rod Parker. "We find that parents haven't done anything wrong and the state can't articulate to any parent what the parents did."

Examples of the accommodations being made: Judge John Specia told CPS to allow Rebecca Allred, 20, and husband Wendell Jeffs, 23, to have a four-hour, unsupervised visit once a week. The couple have a 8-month-old son.

Judge Tom Gossett told CPS to find a way to reunite Louisa Barlow Jessop with two children who were with her until she gave birth on May 12. A day later, the state acknowledged she was 22; it left the newborn in her care but moved the younger children, ages 2 and 3.

A guardian ad litem "implored" Gossett to return the children, saying they have done poorly since being separated from their mother.

"The 3-year-old has become very withdrawn," Marie Clark said, while the couple's son "is not eating well or sleeping well."

The judge said it was "not acceptable" when told by a CPS worker there was no place that could take the mother and her children and gave the agency a week to resolve the issue.

It may not take that long. Louisa Jessop, who participated in the hearing by telephone, said the shelter she is in will let them join her.

Asked by her husband, Dan, why the state had taken his children, Gossett said a "wide loop" had been thrown around the FLDS community that might not fit all parents. The state, he said, had concerns about the FLDS' beliefs, plural and underage marriages and "communal attitude."

If those allegations prove unfounded, "I'll be the first to apologize to you if it turns out you're not a person who has abused your child," the judge told Dan Jessop, who was in the courtroom. "There is no proof of abuse in your case. That gives you a leg up."