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FLDS custody case: Torn-up families antsy

Published May 27, 2008 12:18 am

Scores of kids, parents to reunite if appeals court ruling is upheld
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

SAN ANGELO, Texas - Hearing her three children cry out for her, even listening to them squabble, are the sweetest sounds in the world to this mother.

Seven weeks after being forced apart, Lori Jessop has her family together again - husband, Joseph S. Jessop Sr., and children Ziana, 4, Joeson, 2, and J.R., 1.

But will it last?

As the Jessops settled into a temporary home this weekend, the Texas Supreme Court was weighing two conflicting legal decisions about the state's case for removing about 450 children in April from the Yearning For Zion Ranch, home to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

A decision may come this morning on the state's request for a stay on an appellate court ruling that sends some, if not all, the children back to their parents absent specific evidence they are in urgent danger of abuse.

Only one hearing related to the FLDS case is on the docket at the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo: That of an infant son born to Louisa B. Jessop and her husband, Dan, on May 12. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services argued Friday that the Jessops are part of a household at the ranch that condones underage marriages and a communal lifestyle.

Its most damning piece of evidence: a photograph of polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs giving a husbandly kiss to a 12-year-old girl in July 2006. The girl is Dan Jessop's sister.

The state hinted at witnesses that would create more fireworks and 51st District Judge Barbara Walther, stung by the appellate court's criticism, egged the department on.

The court canceled other status hearings set for the day, but the calendar remains intact for Wednesday, according to a spokesman. Five judges had waded through dozens of cases by noon Thursday, before the Third Court of Appeals ruling brought the process to a standstill.

In all but a handful of cases, attorneys for parents and children had no luck getting modifications made to boilerplate family service plans presented at the hearings. Many parents submitted their own plans, however.

Several judges asked, but did not order, the state to move siblings together; a young husband was given permission to visit his wife for four hours a week.

Lori and Joseph Jessop made their case before a different judge in a different court, and that may have made a difference. The Jessops have been married a little over seven years. He is 27, she is 25. Both are certified EMTs. They have lived at the ranch on and off for three years.

Lori Jessop testified during a two-day hearing in April, during which Walther ordered the state to retain custody of their children. From the start, they gave accurate names and identifications for themselves and their children, Joseph Jessop said. But they were still included in the group.

The Jessops, a monogamous couple, were the first family to have their children returned to them pending the Texas Supreme Court's decision; two other monogamous couples had their children returned Saturday. But that didn't come easily.

The three couples' cases were filed separately from the Third Court of Appeals ruling that specifically names 41 mothers and their children.

Lori Jessop and the three children were taken from the ranch on April 5, eventually ending up at the San Angelo Coliseum. Somewhere along the way, her children contracted several illnesses - including chicken pox and giardia, a water-borne parasite. All three spent nine days in the hospital, where Lori, who was still nursing J.R., was allowed to join them.

Once released, the two youngest were sent to a shelter in Gonzales while Lori and J.R. remained in San Antonio. Caseworkers had to pry the other two children from her, she said.

Lori Jessop said caseworkers suggested she let J.R. go, too, because he would soon be taken away based on Walther's order that cut off nursing mothers once their children reached 12 months.

The "threat" was "so devastating I couldn't even speak," Lori Jessop said.

Instead, their attorney, Rene Haas of Corpus Christi, went to court. On May 14, two days before J.R.'s first birthday, a judge barred the state from removing him from his mother and ordered the Child Protective Services to let the couple visit their other children daily.

They returned to court Friday on a petition to have their children returned. Instead of holding the hearing, the judge told Haas, CPS and the state to work out a resolution.

The negotiations went on for more than five hours, Haas said, and involved representatives of the Texas Attorney General's Office. In the end, a written agreement was hammered out and approved by the judge - but a caseworker still refused to turn the couple's children over to them. The reasons shifted: a media gag order was needed; the temporary home had to pass inspection first; confusion over who agreed to the deal.

It took almost an hour and three trips back to see the judge before CPS released the children, Haas said, and the parents took them in their arms. "It was awfully nice," she said.

Having his family back is "so wonderful," Joseph Jessop said. "It lifts the burden off your mind and heart to know where they are, what they are doing and know they're being cared for."

The Jessops, who are staying in an undisclosed location in the San Antonio area, said the experience has marked their children. Ziana calls everyone she sees a police officer; Joeson has gone back to sucking a "plug" and needing a diaper. They are clingy, emotional and wake up throughout the night.

"I think that we are healing and overcoming the trauma it's caused," Lori Jessop said. "I'm hoping the children are on the mend."

They know, Joseph Jessop said, to "patiently bring them through it" but "I don't know if we can heal the wounds."

To other FLDS parents, they hold themselves out as a beginning. "We keep our prayers going for each other," he said.

brooke@sltrib.com