San Angelo, Texas -- A potholder, sand art and the hug of a child: One year later, they are the simple tokens the three women seated around a conference room table carry with them.
They are reminders of the children for whom they were asked to advocate -- and whom they believe the system failed.
Paulette Schell, a staff member for the Children's Advocacy Center of Tom Green County, still has the potholder, given to her by a precocious girl who she remembers did not actually like to cook.
The girl, a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was returned to her parents in June, and like 437 others, her case has been dismissed by the state's Child Protective Services agency.
Schell shakes her head.
"She was abrasive," she smiles, gesturing to her colleague, Shirley Davis, and her boss, advocacy center Executive Director Debra Brown, "just like us."
"You just wonder," she continues. "Will that stay with her?"
The three women make up half the full-time staff of the agency that runs the Court Appointed Special Advocates program for the Tom Green County state district courts. They are the third-party observers appointed by judges to determine the merit of claims made by CPS and advise the court on whether children should remain in state care or be returned to their parents.
With all but one child dismissed from the mammoth child-custody case that began with an April 3 raid of the polygamous sect's YFZ Ranch in Schleicher County, the court-appointed guardians finally are free to discuss what they found as they worked with mothers and children at Fort Concho and the San Angelo Coliseum.
Ripping into CPS for what they described as an inexplicable desire to drop the case as quickly as possible, Brown and her employees said the agency underestimated in its final assessment the amount of abuse that took place at the ranch. As well, they said CPS nonsuited children without adequately determining whether they were truly safe from the prospect of forced underage marriages.
It's a characterization with which the agency obviously disagrees -- but which seems obvious to Brown.
"At some point, CPS decided to turn a corner and just get out," Brown said. "That's when everybody stopped getting looked at."
Check on some young ladies
All stories have a beginning, and Debra Brown's naturally begins the afternoon of April 3, as CPS and state law enforcement prepared to drive the 45 miles from San Angelo south to Eldorado. There they would use a search warrant to gain access to the nearby YFZ Ranch and investigate telephoned allegations of physical and sexual abuse from a girl calling herself Sarah Jessop.
Brown received a phone call from 51st District Judge Barbara Walther, who had just signed the warrant.
"There has been a report of child abuse" at the compound, Brown said Walther told her. "I've signed a warrant for CPS and law enforcement. They're going to check on some young ladies. There may be possible removals."
Brown said they were ready.
The next day, Brown, in San Antonio, received periodic updates from Walther, the number of children increasing with each phone call.
Could Brown's CASA staff handle a dozen children, if necessary, the judge asked initially. Then the number grew to 35. Then 80 to 100.
"Over the weekend, that number kept growing and growing," Brown said.
By Saturday afternoon, April 5, the number was 200.
The advocacy center, then sporting a full-time staff of just four and already handling 268 children, scrambled, asking inactive volunteers to come in and help with paperwork and interviewing the children and parents. Fifty answered the call, and 35 new volunteers were sworn in.
State and national CASA organizations arrived to provide help and advice about increased security as staffers received threats over their perceived role in the removal.
Meanwhile, the local guardians crammed the books.
"We're having to learn an entire new culture and religion," Schell said. "We're reading, talking to people, asking questions. The amount of research was tremendous."
How do you file this stuff?
Ultimately, CPS removed 468 people -- 439 children and 29 women believed at the time to be children. The 468 people, Davis said, had just 18 last names between them.
Attempting to determine familial relationships proved difficult, as women and children gave conflicting answers and uniformly refused to say who the children's fathers were.
Siblings also gave different responses about parentage. In part, that was because some had been reassigned by sect leader Warren Jeffs to different families and, depending on their ages, different siblings considered different people to be their parents.
"How do you file this stuff?" Brown said. "The Jessops and Jeffs are in three cabinets. Everyone else is in one.
"The children had been told, warned, coached not to say who their father was. It took us quite a while to figure out."
Additionally, CPS allowed the mothers of the removed children to remain, an unusual step for the agency and one the CASA workers said backfired when the mothers began to inhibit efforts to elicit truthful answers from their children.
"We really wanted the children separate from the mothers and from the older children," Brown said. "There's a real pecking order there."
"When you tried to talk to one," Davis added, "you were immediately surrounded, and there was a spokesman."
The guardians pressed CPS and the court to remove the mothers, something that eventually occurred April 14, leading to a series of tearful media interviews.
Yet when Davis watched news footage of the outraged mothers on television, she noticed something strange, she said: They weren't the same women with whom she had been working over the previous week.
"Most of that was just staged," Davis said. "There were some very good mothers, but they weren't the ones on TV."
The lack of information and conflicting answers made returning the children to their proper parents impossible -- even if that had been the appropriate course of action, Brown said.
On April 18, to end the second day of a marathon hearing on whether the children should remain in temporary state custody, Brown stood and delivered her recommendation to Walther with hundreds of FLDS members and attorneys watching in two courtrooms.
The children should stay in custody, Brown said.
The recommendation was exactly what CPS was seeking. But that was a function of parallel investigations reaching the same conclusions, Davis said, not a rubber-stamping of the agency's wishes.
"It happened to be in line with CPS," she said. "Having the information we had, we would never have recommended that a child go back under those circumstances."
Tensions are high
While the court decisions were going CPS' way, public opinion seemed to be turning against the agency, fueled by a series of reports filed by staffers with the Hill Country Mental Health/Mental Retardation center that described poor treatment of women and children at the hands of CPS caseworkers.
Though not explicitly questioning the truthfulness of the claims, the CASA workers said they saw none of the alleged incidents detailed in the reports.
"You've got families in crisis, and tensions are high," Schell said. "I never saw CPS being mean (or) rude.
"Children are confused and parents are mad, and you had a whole lot in one place."
If CPS failed in its investigation of alleged abuse at the ranch, the women said, it was by caring too much about public opinion -- to the point that the agency, they said, began dismissing cases indiscriminately.
"What the media says and what the public thinks is a zero in the equation," Brown said. "It should be what is in the best interests of the child.
"Who cares what Willie (Jessop) says? Who cares what Nancy Grace says? Who cares what anyone says?"
CPS ultimately said it found 12 girls who were married between the ages of 12 and 15, and that more than half the families at the ranch had abused or neglected their children.
"I thought it was low," Brown said of the number of alleged underage brides, adding that CASA and CPS had identified about 40 families for further investigation before lead CPS attorney Charles Childress unexpectedly left the department.
"If (local CPS) had been doing this case, it would have been done completely different," Brown said, "but it went to Austin, to the bureaucrats.
"The whole about-face was kind of weird."
Davis agreed, adding the departure of another CPS attorney, Jeff Schmidt.
Childress "left, then Jeff left, then so did the plan," she said.
CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins disagreed.
"Nonsuits occurred only after CPS determined that the parents or other family members took appropriate action to protect the children from future abuse or neglect," he said.
One year later
Eleven months and 26 days have passed since Walther called Brown, since CPS investigators drove down a mile-long gravel road in the middle of the West Texas night, since the first girls answered the first questions about who was their father, who was their husband, whose was their baby.
The children have been returned, most to the YFZ Ranch, living a lifestyle their court-appointed guardians are convinced is unhealthy for many of them.
"There were definitely some of the cases where the children shouldn't have been removed and should have been returned quickly," Davis said. But, she continued, "These are children who were removed for a reason."
The calls that sparked the raid are now believed to be a hoax. The "Sarah Jessop" who called a San Angelo battered-women's shelter has never been found. Authorities instead suspect a 33-year-old Colorado woman who has never been charged in the case.
The story may have been false, Brown and her staff say, but it had basis in truth.
"I could give you 20 different girls off the top of my head where that scenario fits," Brown said. "The only things that have changed from before this happened are the children have been exposed to the outside world a little bit. The mothers and daughters have been educated in the law.
"Are they safe?" she continued. "Well, I don't know. I still have doubts about that."