Yearning to Return to Zion

Aubrey Connatser and Ramsey Patton took on one of the largest custody cases—over 400 children—in Texas history

Published in 2009 Texas Rising Stars — April 2009

The scene was unlike anything Connatser or Ramsey Patton had ever experienced. Hundreds of people—parents, lawyers, children and state officials—were crammed into the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo. Meanwhile, hundreds more were at the city hall auditorium a couple of blocks away, watching the proceedings via a live video feed that enabled them to participate in the hearing.

It was not your typical child custody case. As Connatser aptly describes it: "We were living the hardest bar exam question you could ever face."

From Dallas's Koons, Fuller, Vanden Eykel & Robertson, Connatser, the youngest partner in the firm's history, and Patton, an associate, were in San Angelo as pro bono attorneys ad litem in one of the most newsworthy—and legally intriguing—cases in Texas history. The two women were among hundreds of lawyers from throughout the state who agreed to serve as advocates for the more than 400 children seized by the state's department of child protective services during a raid on a Mormon splinter group, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (or FLDS), last spring in West Texas.

 It was a "We're not in Kansas anymore" moment for the two women, big-city lawyers in small-town West Texas working with crusty country lawyers, some of whom were wearing cowboy hats and boots. Koons Fuller, on the other hand, is perhaps Dallas' most high-powered family law firm, where the attorneys handle many of the city's most high-profile divorce cases, and where allegations of incest and polygamy are rarely heard.

"They went out of their way to not just be a guardian ad litem for the children, but demonstrated an interest and a concern for that child," says Jim Johnson, a longtime San Angelo attorney who worked with Connatser and Patton and gave them a place to stay when they couldn't find a motel room in San Angelo. "These two Dallas ladies are not just great attorneys, but great human beings. Anytime they want to come back, they're welcome."

 

Constitutional Issues

On April 3, 2008, child welfare authorities raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, about 160 miles northwest of San Antonio. They seized over 400 children, alleging that the children had been abused—girls were being forced into underage marriages and boys were being raised to marry the girls. Half the children were under 5. It was one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history, and parts of it are still being adjudicated. A number of children were born during the custody hearing process, and several others reached their age of legal independence.

As of this writing, more than half the children have been returned to their parents, and state officials say they probably should have considered options other than seizing the children. Ken Fuller, the name partner with Koons Fuller, says most of the attorneys who represented the children didn't have a quarrel with the people he describes as the hard-working state case workers who were caught in the middle. The seizures were bad policy, he says, and should never have been authorized.

The FLDS has been controversial for more than a century. It broke with the Mormon church when the latter renounced polygamy at the end of the 19th century, and is estimated to have about 10,000 members. About 600 may have been living on the 1,700-acre ranch outside of the small town of Eldorado when authorities made the decision to seize the children. State child protective services (CPS) officials said they were acting on several tips, including phone calls to a domestic abuse hotline in which the caller claimed to be an underage wife and mother who was being beaten and raped by her much-older husband. State police have investigated whether the calls were a hoax.

Five FLDS members, including leader Warren Jeffs, have been indicted in Schleicher County in Texas for sexual assault of a child, and several more have been charged with bigamy. Jeffs, convicted on a rape charge in Utah, is in jail in Arizona, where he is awaiting trial on charges stemming from the alleged underage marriage of FLDS girls.

"Aubrey and Ramsey are both caring people in addition to being professionals," says Fuller. "They were outraged, as were most family law attorneys, at the bureaucratic audacity of CPS in making a blanket seizure of 400-plus children from the possession of their parents without first exhausting all other remedies. I'm sure they felt professionally inclined to use their skills to right what obviously was a gross injustice being inflicted on these families simply because of their unique religious practice."

 

In West Texas

In fact, there was little hesitation about whether to do the pro bono work or not. The two women are good friends, and interviewing them is like talking to just one person. If they don't quite finish each other's sentences, they do seem to know what the other is going to say.

"Ramsey told me she was going, and how could I not help? So we signed up," says Connatser. "We didn't know quite what to expect, but I'm sure most people didn't know what to expect, either."

First, though, they had to get there, and that wasn't as easy as it sounds. West Texas is vast; El Paso is almost closer to Los Angeles than it is to Houston. So what seems like a long drive to someone from Dallas is nothing at all to people who live in West Texas. Consider, too, that San Angelo didn't have enough motels for the hundreds of people who came to town for the first hearing.

A waitress at a restaurant where the two stopped on the four-hour trip from Dallas suggested they stay in Sweetwater, which the waitress said was near San Angelo. Near, in this case, was 70 miles, which wasn't quite close enough for Connatser and Patton. That's how the two women ended up staying with Johnson and his wife, Jean. Six months later, they're still grateful for the late-night dinners that Jean whipped up when they got home from the hearings.

"It was a lot of learning as you go," says Connatser, a 2001 graduate of the University of Texas law school. "It was so unprecedented. Everyone had to be positive and flexible. It was staggering the number of litigants. And I never had a case where there were so many lawyers."

The women's work in their custody cases fit into three parts: During their first trip to San Angelo, they met with their clients, and persevered through the first couple of days of hearings. The days lasted as long as 12 hours, and sometimes seemed almost surreal, and not just because so many people were involved. For instance, when someone in the city hall rose to make an objection, there were a couple of seconds of lag time before anyone in the courtroom could hear them, producing a give-and-take that sounded almost tape-delayed. In addition, most people in the courtroom only heard a voice when someone in the city hall spoke.

Says Patton, who was in the city hall satellite during those hearings: "It was weird, but it worked."

The second part consisted of another visit to the area, including a trip to the Eldorado ranch to see where their clients lived, a weekend road trip that covered 21 hours and 1,000 miles. "I just thought it was so fascinating," says Patton, a 2005 graduate of the University of Texas law school. "We got to learn about another religion, and that was one of my favorite parts."

The third phase was the paperwork, most of which they handled in their Dallas office. The women estimate that they spent two to three days a week looking at motions, drafting motions, e-mailing other attorneys, and handling anything else that came up. (They wouldn't discuss any of the specifics of their work, such as the age of their clients and the disposition of their cases, citing client confidentiality.)

 The duo found themselves involved with several informal groups of attorneys, thanks to their family law experience and personality. To inform herself and the other two firm attorneys involved with the case, Patton monitored a listserv of all attorneys ad litem. The listserv, which coordinated work among attorneys throughout the state who were working on similar aspects of the cases (like children from the same family) saw 100 to 200 e-mails a day in peak times. Connatser says they were occasionally asked for advice by other lawyers, whose experience was much more West Texas—oil and gas, real estate, and business—than family law. They also visited the foster facilities where their clients were staying and had contact with the caseworkers and CASA (the guardian ad litem). All told, Patton's case lasted from April to June, while Connatser's was finished in August.

 

Lessons Learned

"They repeatedly checked in to the situations with their respective clients regarding clothing and other necessities, and sat down to visit with the children, played with them, and attempted to really get to know both the children and their respective parents," says Fuller. "This was done on more than one occasion and at more than one location, some of them several hundred miles apart, and all at their sole time and expense."

None of this, they say, was a burden for either their families or their firm. Connatster's husband is a lawyer, so he knew the work that was expected, while Patton is married to a teacher. He more than gave her the benefit of the doubt, she says, because she was working for children. Koons Fuller, meanwhile, is well-known in the Dallas area for its pro bono work, and was helpful in allowing them time, resources and support. Says Connatser: "The firm never blinked an eye."

So what motivated a couple of high-priced, big-city lawyers to get involved in something this complicated and far away from home? The two women seem almost embarrassed by the question.

"As attorneys, a lot of us look on our professional obligation to serve and to help," says Patton. "This was pure service. How could we turn it down?"

In fact, both women have had experience working with children and child custody cases that extends outside their practices. Each worked at the university-sponsored domestic violence clinic when they attended the UT law school. So when e-mails started making the rounds that attorneys ad litem would be needed for more than 400 children in a remote part of the state, there was no hesitation.

It wasn't always easy and it wasn't always fun. "One of the most difficult parts," says Connatser, "was separating yourself from the situation. You had to stay focused on your limited role, regardless of your personal opinion. We're a state of laws, and we have laws for a reason."

Neither was surprised to see most of the children returned to their families, given the case law and the precedents involved. And, in the end, "I got a lot more out of this than I put into it," says Connatser. Patton, sitting across the table, nods her head in agreement.

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