SAN ANGELO, Texas — The chaotic custody case surrounding hundreds of children taken from the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch remains on hold today, pending a decision by the Texas Supreme Court on whether to return the children to their parents.

Meanwhile, Texas child welfare authorities said Tuesday they have uncovered more evidence that makes their case of underage marriages and sex abuse at the polygamous sect's property. That evidence was expected to be made public Tuesday at a court hearing over a 14-day-old baby, but a last-minute deal was struck.

"I understand y'all have reached a tentative agreement," Judge Barbara Walther said after a 2 1/2-hour delay, so lawyers could negotiate behind closed doors.

Dan Jessop and his wife Louisa Bradshaw (Jessop) signed a deal that gives the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services sole conservatorship over the baby. The parents have been named temporary possessors.

"I feel good about it," Dan Jessop said as he walked out of the courtroom. "It's one step closer to my family being together."

Bradshaw will stay in a San Antonio shelter with her baby. Her other children, a 3-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy, will be moved from a foster care facility in Austin to join her.

The deal can also be revisited upon a ruling by the Texas Supreme Court.

"We're pleased that the judge agreed that the baby should remain in the state's care," Texas Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said Tuesday, reading from a prepared statement.

"Investigators have been able to go through more of the documents found at the ranch, and that means CPS has access to even more evidence detailing family relationships including marriages of underage girls. It's clearer than ever that children were at significant risk of sexual abuse at the ranch. We were prepared to present that evidence to the court. We do not know if the parents or FLDS agreed to a quick solution in this case in order to avoid the public disclosure of that evidence."

Witnesses

Tuesday's hearing would have called numerous witnesses, attorneys said, including a 13-year-old girl who CPS suggested was a child bride of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs. The girl is a sister of Dan Jessop.

Jessop's attorney, Pat Matassarin, said the agreement was reached in a "collective effort." She had filed a motion to continue the hearing when she learned the witnesses were going to testify and CPS lawyers had come to court with documents several inches thick — but she had no idea what they would be talking about.

"The only thing they're supposed to be addressing is the physical well-being of the baby," Matassarin said. "Not 13-year-olds, not 15-year-olds, none of that."

Matassarin was referring to bombshell photographs introduced into evidence last week that showed Jeffs kissing a then-12-year-old girl in a manner that lawyers for CPS described as "how a husband kisses a wife."

Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney acting as a spokesman for the FLDS Church, accused Texas child welfare authorities of engaging in a "publicity stunt" with courtroom evidence.

"They have nothing to do with this family," he said. "It's just an effort by CPS to get publicity for their larger intent to paint everybody with this same brush. These photos have no tie to this particular family in a way that's relevant to these proceedings."

A copy of the custody agreement obtained by the Deseret News also included a handwritten finding that the girl in the photo lived in

the same building as the Jessops. It was initialed by all of the parties in the case. On the witness stand last week, Bradshaw had struggled to name anyone who lived in the house with her except her husband and children.

Two pieces of evidence were entered into court on Tuesday. Texas CPS attorney Ellen Griffith told the judge one was a marriage record dated July 2006 and another dated December 2003. The 2006 record was immediately sealed by the judge after a request by an attorney representing the girl in the photo. The 2003 record is presumed to be Dan and Louisa Jessop's marriage record.

Jessop's baby was born while his mother was in state custody. CPS workers considered Bradshaw a minor. After the baby's birth, however, CPS declared her an adult (she is 22) and sought to have the child placed in state custody along with more than 450 other FLDS children caught up in the raid.

While he considers it a partial victory, Jessop said he isn't sure when his children will actually be reunited with their mother. Promises of a reunion before have not been kept, he said.

"We're trying to have faith in the government," he said. "It's pretty rough right now. We're working hard at it. I think CPS did a good move today."

Supreme Court

With no decision from the Texas Supreme Court, lawyers for both sides filed more papers in an attempt to persuade the high court. Texas child welfare authorities urged the court to grant its request for an emergency stay of a ruling by Austin's 3rd Court of Appeals.

The appellate court ruling said the state acted improperly in removing all of the children. It ordered more than 100 children be returned to their mothers and opened the door for other FLDS parents to seek the return of their children.

Agency lawyers said that they still have been unable to identify family relationships and repeated claims that the parents made it deliberately difficult to establish paternity.

"Failure to grant a stay will mean that approximately 124 children will be returned to alleged mothers without any male sexual perpetrators being identified," Texas CPS lawyer Duke Hooten wrote.

Texas CPS lawyers also expressed concern that if the Supreme Court upholds the appellate court's decision, the FLDS might flee Texas.

Lawyers for the 38 mothers responded, taking issue with the agency's characterization of a San Antonio court proceeding that ended with 12 children being reunited with their parents. The FLDS mothers' attorneys noted that CPS agreed to send the children back to their parents, with conditions.

"The department's agreement to reunite some children with their parents undermines the reasons it has articulated for the stay," attorney Amy Warr wrote. "First, it undermines the department's insistence that every single child is in imminent danger of abuse because of the parents' beliefs."

Warr also said it contradicts CPS's claim that without DNA testing, it can't match children with their parents, and that the agency has been allowing visitation and requiring family service plans to be signed.

If the 3rd Court of Appeals ruling stands, CPS said, the FLDS children "will be at risk of continuing sexual and emotional abuse, which certainly is not in the children's best interest."

Status hearings, which help determine the terms of reunification for parents and children, are on hold in San Angelo again today pending a high court decision. It is unknown if they will resume on Thursday.


E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com