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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Exclusive: An Interview With Natalie Malonis, Lawyer Representing FLDS Children

After authorities raided the FLDS polygamist compound, the world waits to see what will happen to the kids now held in protective custody. This is your up-close-and-personal talk with an attorney appointed by the court to represent some of the kids.
In early April, 463 minors were removed from the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) compound after U.S. Child Protective Services (CPS) witnessed evidence of child abuse at the Yearning For Zion Ranch (YFZ).

The State of Texas was given temporary custody of the children, along with orders for DNA testing to be done to determine blood lines and relationships.

Many details about the CPS investigation have come out as of late, but all details lead to speculation about what will happen to the kids involved. The media, observes and the general public are now wondering how the children are doing in temporary foster homes, what type of parental visitation has been granted, and how the largest custody case in U.S. history will move forward.

In an exclusive interview with Natalie Malonis, the woman appointed Attorney ad litem for three of the FLDS children and serving as co-counsel for one other child, we get answers to a few of those questions.

Malonis has extensive expertise in Family Law, Asset Protection and Estate Planning and Probate. Within Family Law, she specializes in complex, high-conflict custody litigation, as well as issues such as domestic violence, substance abuse and parental relocation.

The reason I cannot answer some questions is because of the state disciplinary rules. Rules of professional conduct prohibit an attorney from disclosing anything about their clients without authorization. We're representing minors so they cant authorize disclosure. We're also not allowed to give an opinion on core issues while the case is pending.

(Correction made to this article as to the reason Ms. Malonis cannot answer certain questions.)

S.D.: First could you explain to readers what ad litem is, and what your responsibilities are regarding your young clients?

Natalie Malonis: An attorney ad litem in this context is an attorney appointed by the court to represent a child in custody proceedings instituted by the State (CPS or DFPS). My responsibilities are to determine whether my clients have the capacity to formulate objectives of litigation, and if so to express those to the court. In certain circumstances when a child lacks the capacity to direct litigation, because of age or mental status, etc, an attorney ad litem has some latitude to substitute the attorney's judgment for the child's.

S.D.: I understand that you can discuss issues that are already public record, so with that in mind, I see that recently the Department of Family and Protective Services has issued a preliminary report to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. In that report it states that they have reason to believe that some of the children in the state's care do not have parents at the FLDS compound. What do you know about this claim?

Malonis: I did read that report, and I have seen it mentioned in the press. I do not know anything about any specific child, but it is my understanding that in trying to locate the parents of all of the children, CPS has preliminarily concluded that none of the adults living at the compound are the parents of some of the children in custody. I know that CPS is looking at a variety of records and sources to determine those identities and the process was initially obfuscated because some adults and some children would not speak of certain issues and would not identify family relationships. It is my understanding that situation has improved but is not resolved.

S.D.: In the 88-page warrant that was released, it named a number of items including computers, photos, journals and various items taken from the compound. Are you and other representatives for the children able to access those items to help you evaluate the situation, the history involved and so that you fully understand the circumstances?

Malonis: I believe the special masters have now completed their review of those items to determine if some items are privileged. In theory, the items should be available to CPS as part of a joint investigation with law enforcement, which means that in theory the items will be made available to the attorneys ad litem. As a practical matter, I am not sure how we will have access and what the procedure is for gaining or requesting access. Logistically this case has presented some difficulties with that type of thing simply because there are so many children with so many lawyers. Short answer to your question -- at this moment I am not aware of any attorney ad litem having access to the evidence, but we will have access at some point and in some manner.

S.D.: Have you been able to consult with your clients?

Malonis: Yes, I initially had difficulty locating one client, but there is no barrier to open communication and consultation with my clients.

S.D.: How do you react to news reports saying 31 out of 53 underage girls are in the custody of the State of Texas?

Malonis: If true, that is a shocking number. Based on testimony and evidence presented at trial, I am not surprised by that number.

S.D.: In your opinion, does that constitute what the state CPS officials call a "pattern of abuse"?

Malonis: I cannot comment on that specifically because it is an ultimate issue in these proceedings. If the number is accurate, intuitively it would appear that it is out of line with the general population.

S.D.: Howe often do you hear about how your young clients are adjusting to the care facilities in which they have been placed?

Malonis: I have frequent contact with my clients and with their supervisors and caseworkers. I get a report daily about how the adjustment is going and what services are being provided.

S.D.: What is your primary concern for the children if 1) they're awarded to the state permanently in the pending custody hearings and 2) if they are returned to the compound?

Malonis: That's a difficult question because each child has different circumstances, and they will adapt to their new environment in their own way and at their own pace. I could not give a single answer that would apply to all the children or even that would apply to each of my clients. I will say this: I am optimistic for each of my clients, and I am pleased so far with the level of care and accommodations for contact with their mothers. I think each of my clients will be fine, and I trust the process to protect them and ultimately place them appropriately -- it requires vigilance and commitment on the part of all involved in their care, however -- including attorneys, parents, caseworkers, guardians, and the judiciary.

S.D.: Are you involved in arrangements for the parents of the children to receive supervised visitation?

Malonis: Yes, I am. That was a priority from the start and visitation is taking place.

S.D.: Do you believe it is in your client's best interest to have that visitation?

Malonis: Speaking generally, I think it's best for kids to be able to have contact with their parents in controlled settings. The circumstances may vary from child to child depending on the individual needs.

S.D.: Have you spoken to your clients' parents?

Malonis: Yes, I have.

Q: What do the parents say about all of this when you speak with them?"

Malonis: The parents are looking forward to visiting with their children and, at least in my cases, the parents and their attorneys are being very cooperative and providing information that is requested. They have expressed a willingness to follow requirements of CPS and other professionals to regain custody.

S.D.: What proceedings are pending in relation to your clients?

Malonis: The next proceeding is a status conference of "60 day hearing." Each child will have this type hearing in the coming weeks.

S.D.: Have your clients had their status hearing dates set yet?

Malonis: Yes, I believe all of the status hearings are now scheduled.

S.D.: What testimony given at the hearings and subsequent reports by experts, concerned you the most?

Malonis: The testimony that there may be girls who believe that any age is acceptable for marriage is troubling to me. There was also some testimony that young boys may be abandoned, and that concerns me if it is true.

S.D.: Do you have any legal opinion about the CPS treating the whole compound as one "household," therefore removing all the children?

Malonis: This is an interesting issue of first impression as far as I know. The Family Code allows a judge to consider whether sexual abuse has occurred in a "household" as a factor in determining whether all other children in that same household are in danger. In that particular section of the Code "household" is not defined, although it is defined elsewhere in sections relating to family violence. I don't think the drafters of the Family Code would have contemplated this kind of communal living. It's unclear whether this type of closed environment fits squarely within the meaning of "household." I think there are very good arguments on both sides of that issue, and some of these cases may well turn on how the Court decides that issue. From her ruling at the 14-day she seems to be considering the community as one household.

S.D.: How does the legal team work together? I imagine coordinating such a large body can present challenges.

Malonis: We have 300 or so ad litems working on this case, and working with this group of people has been the single most uplifting experience of my career. You throw 300 trial attorneys together, and you expect to see loss of life or limb in short order. Not so in this case. Make no mistake, we have a huge, wide range of views on the case and proceedings so far. Nevertheless, there's a level of cooperation and sacrifice, generosity and kindness of spirit among this group like I've never witnessed. I have never been more proud of my profession, and I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to participate.

All previous related articles on the FLDS children, from Wake up America, found here.