Civil Liberties

The Investigation Continues, but Here Are a Few Reckless Allegations


Yesterday, attempting to retroactively justify the wholesale removal of children from the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch, Carey Cockerell, commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, insinuated that children at the ranch, which is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), had been beaten severely enough to break their bones. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Cockerell told a state legislative committee "at least 41 children from the polygamous YFZ Ranch have had broken bones," which he said was "cause for concern." Yet USA Today reports that the medical textbook Fractures in Children "cites data that suggest 42% of boys and 27% of girls suffer at least one fracture before age 16." According to the latest official count, the state of Texas has taken custody of 464 minors who lived at YFZ, ranging in age from less than 1 to 17. If 41 of them have had broken bones, that's less than 10 percent over all, which, pace Cockerell, does not seem to be "cause for concern."

FLDS attorney Rod Parker notes that some of the children at YFZ suffer from brittle bone disease:

That makes some of the children more susceptible to broken bones. The mothers told CPS about that when they were taken in. They've known all along that the reason they might see higher incidence of broken bones was due to this condition. They have no evidence to support the implication it is due to child abuse.

Lloyd Barlow, a physician who lives at YFZ, said he'd seen no signs of abuse: 

"Probably over 90 percent of the injuries are forearm fractures from ground-level or low level falls," Barlow told The Associated Press from his office at the Eldorado ranch. "I can also tell you that we don't live in a community where there is a pattern of abuse."

Barlow said he is an FLDS member but also a licensed physician in Texas and Utah and is required by law to report suspected abuse.

"What they are saying is that in the history of the lives of 400 some-odd children, there have been injuries. They are not saying they have 41 [current] fractures," he said.

Cockerell's department later backed away from his insinuation that the fractures were evidence of beatings:

Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Child Protective Services division, said the state was still investigating and Cockerell's comments were not meant to be an allegation of abuse.

"This is pretty early in this investigation, particularly given the number of children we've been interviewing," he said. "We are just looking into it."

This is pretty sleazy: There seem to be a lot of broken bones (though not any more than you'd expect in a random sample of American kids), and we're concerned about that, but we're not saying the kids were abused. We're just strongly implying it.

Cockerell also said "interviews with children and journals found at the ranch" have led investigators to believe some of the boys may have been sexually abused. Anyone who is familar with episodes like the trumped-up McMartin Preschool prosecutions understands how easy it is for social workers, through leading questions and repeated allegations, to elicit testimony from little kids that supports their preconceptions. As for the journals, since Cockerell says only that abuse may have occurred, I assume the written evidence is ambiguous as well.

Although it may turn out that some of the children at YFZ were abused physically and/or sexually, I don't trust Cockerell's investigators to find the truth, because I don't think they see that as their mission. Instead they are intent on showing, in the face of widespread criticism, that the state was right to separate all the children from their parents, even though there was no evidence of abuse in the vast majority of cases. The thing is, they will never be able to show the state was right, no matter what they find. At the time they forcibly removed these children, state officials conceded they had no reason to believe anyone was being beaten or that sexual abuse extended beyond the underage marriage of teenaged girls (the extent of which is disputed by FLDS members). As I noted in my column yesterday, in more than nine out of 10 cases their argument for separation hinged on the idea that bringing children up according to FLDS teachings was inherently abusive. If they subsequently find evidence of physical or sexual abuse, that does not make their rationale for removal any more legitimate.