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As one of the hundreds of lawyers appointed to represent children evacuated from a polygamist sect’s compound in Texas, Amy Johnston, a civil litigator, has spent the past few weeks absorbing the fundamentals of the state’s family code. But she’s also sanitized her hands, changed what she wears and retrieved clothing for her new clients. “I’ve been trying to work on legal work, but this has consumed my time,” said Johnston, a partner at Johnston & Miller in Lubbock, Texas, and one of 350 lawyers representing women and children in the largest child abuse case in the state. In early April, state officials, suspecting widespread child abuse, raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, home to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). ‘A nightmare’ Most of the pro bono attorneys are serving as ad litems, having been appointed by the court to represent more than 400 children who lived at the ranch. While the majority of the attorneys are family law practitioners, about one-third come from others fields, such as commercial litigation and personal injury law. Attorneys have spent long evenings and weekends studying the state’s legal protections for children, researching the tenets of the FLDS faith and trading e-mails and calls to one another to locate the siblings of their clients. “There are a lot of lawyers involved in this thing, from all over the state,” said Norlynn Price, a partner in the Dallas office of Fulbright & Jaworski, who represents six children from the FLDS ranch. “And everyone is on the downside of a steep learning curve right now.” On April 18, Texas District Judge Barbara L. Walther denied a request by several of the mothers to be reunited with their children. Since then, the children have been moved to foster homes across the state. Child custody hearings begin in May. For most attorneys, the first few weeks have been overwhelming. Mark A. Ticer, of the Law Office of Mark Ticer in Dallas, called the recent relocation of the children “a nightmare.” An insurance lawyer, Ticer represents a child whose siblings are living in separate locations across the state. He said most lawyers are spending considerable time assuring parents of the whereabouts of their children. “The last couple of weeks have been a little wild,” said Shelly Greco, an associate at Dallas-based Eberstein & Witherite, who represents two young girls. A personal injury lawyer, Greco said she took an online course offered by the State Bar of Texas to learn basic family law. Constitutional questions Another 70 lawyers attended a similar course in San Angelo, Texas, before the first major hearing in mid-April, said Charles Childress, a clinical professor at the University of Texas School of Law and a supervising attorney at the Children’s Rights Clinic, who helped teach the class. “We spent quite a long time talking about the ethical issues and chapter of the family code that talks about what attorneys have to do in representing kids in any child abuse cases,” he said. But this isn’t just any child abuse case. Several family law practitioners already foresee significant constitutional questions in the case, which is proceeding so far against the FLDS members as an entire group. Among those issues are due process rights, equal protection and religious freedom. Polly Rea O’Toole, a partner at Dallas-based Atkins O’Toole & Briner who represents an 8-year-old girl, said, “we’re treating these people, these children, as if they all think the same, act the same, believe the same and do the same things because they belong to the same religion.” A learning curve That religion presents its own learning curve. In addition to reading the doctrines and covenants of the FLDS church, O’Toole said she is halfway through a 400-page manuscript titled “The Ascension Theology of Joseph Smith.” Price, at Fulbright, has a different challenge. She said she isn’t even sure if her clients are siblings to one another, even though several have the same name. She plans to travel for a few days to various Texas cities, including San Antonio and Austin, to visit her clients and their mothers. “Right now, the work I’m doing is factually trying to figure out who the players are,” she said.

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