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Next hearings set for kids removed from West Texas polygamist compound

The next round of hearings for the 464 children taken from a West Texas polygamist compound will begin May 19 in San Angelo.

Unlike the chaotic mass hearing that took place last month in San Angelo, District Judge Barbara Walther has vowed to conducted the next hearings on a much smaller scale.

Guy Choate, a San Angelo attorney who has been helping coordinate the hearings for the State Bar of Texas, said the hearings will begin simultaneously in five courtrooms on May 19 in San Angelo.

"There will not be individual hearings for each child but they will be grouped by family groups, where siblings will have hearings together," Choate said.

The goal will be to complete the hearings by June 5 in order to meet the 60-day deadline as required by law.

The children were removed after an April 3 raid on the 1,691-acre YFZ (Yearning For Zion) Ranch after a caller alleged she was an underage bride who had been forced to have sex by her husband. Those calls now appear to have been a hoax but Child Protective Services officials said they found a "pervasive pattern" of physical and sexual abuse on the property owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).

These hearings are unlikely to see any children reunited with their parents at the Eldorado compound. Instead, parents will be working on their service plans where they are required to meet certain guidelines by CPS, Choate said.

Typically, the children are not present at the 60-day hearings, said CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner.

"A service plan is much like a contract between the parents and Child Protective Services," Meisner said. "If the family is apart, the mom will get one, the dad will get one and every child will get one. It's all done with the goal to heal whatever issues need to be healed."

These hearings are unlikely to deal with the mass round of DNA testing that was conducted several weeks ago to determine the parentage of the some of the children.

"I don't think any DNA will be back until late June so mostly they will be working on the service plans," Choate said.

Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid that is representing 48 of the FLDS mothers, said some have received their notifications for the next round of hearings. But she said the mothers remain frustrated that their initial appeal with the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin hasn't been heard.

"It's important to understand these hearings won't revisit the custody issue," Martinez said. "We are not happy at this point. The mothers have the right for these kids to question why their kids were taken."

Under state law, the mothers can submit their own service plan. Some of the mothers are working on their plans, Martinez said.

Mothers now must travel across the state to see their children.

"We had one mother who got up yesterday at 5 a.m. in San Antonio and drove to Corpus Christi to see one of her children and then drove to Waco to see another child. That is pretty typical. They have multiple children spread out in multiple locations hundreds of miles apart across the state," Martinez said.

She said it has been a relief for the mothers to finally see their children.

"I think the mothers are finding strength in seeing their children," Martinez said. "They miss their children and want to make sure they're OK."

The FLDS members came to West Texas in 2003, when the church bought the stark, rolling ranchland four miles north of Eldorado. The sect split from the Mormon Church when the latter rejected polygamy in 1890. Most of the estimated 10,000 members of the FLDS live in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.

There are an estimated 37,000 polygamists nationwide, mostly in the Western United States, according to the Utah attorney general's office.

Warren Jeffs, the group's leader, has been sentenced to two terms of five years to life in prison in Utah for forcing an underage girl to marry an older cousin. He is awaiting trial on additional charges in Arizona.