Civil Liberties

No Child Left Behind

Texas abuses children to prevent abuse.


Two weeks before the Texas Supreme Court unanimously rejected the wholesale removal of children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, a spokesman for the state's Child Protective Services (CPS) insisted the case "is not about religion." If you believe that, you may also believe that a community of hundreds is a single household, or that a 27-year-old is younger than 18, to cite just a couple of the whoppers CPS has told about the largest child custody case in U.S. history.

To justify seizing 468 children from the ranch, which is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), CPS argued that the church's teachings are inherently abusive. CPS did not bother to present evidence that particular children were in immediate physical danger, as required by state law, because it thought membership in the polygamous sect was enough to make parents unfit. The state asserted that a "pervasive belief system" at the ranch, which it raided on April 3 in response to what seems to have been a fictitious abuse report, encouraged underage marriage. "They're living under an umbrella of belief that having children at a young age is a blessing," the lead investigator testified. "Therefore any child in that environment would not be safe."

But as the appeals court ruling upheld by the Texas Supreme Court noted, "The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the [state's] witnesses, by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger. It is the imposition of certain alleged tenets of that system on specific individuals that may put them in physical danger."

CPS claimed 31 underage girls at the ranch were pregnant or mothers. It later conceded that at least 15 of them were in fact adults while a 14-year-old on the list was not pregnant and had no children. The Associated Press reported that "more mothers listed as underage are likely to be reclassified as adults."

In any case, as the appeals court noted, "teenage pregnancy, by itself, is not a reason to remove children from their home and parents." In Texas the minimum age for marriage with parental consent is 16—raised from 14 in 2005 with the FLDS in mind—and "there was no evidence regarding the marital status of these girls when they became pregnant or the circumstances under which they became pregnant."

By the state's count as of late May, underage mothers represented no more than 3 percent of the children it seized. Even if the other girls who had reached puberty were likely to be married off soon (a matter of dispute), there was no evidence that the boys or the prepubescent girls were in danger of abuse. Half the children forcibly separated from their parents were 5 or younger.

CPS glossed over the lack of evidence by treating the entire 1,700-acre ranch as a single household. If there had been even one instance of abuse in the community, it argued, no child should be left there. This assumption of collective guilt was not only contrary to law; it was contradicted by the state's own witnesses, who conceded that FLDS members, only some of whom practice polygamy, disagree about the appropriate age for marriage.

The first parents to be reunited with their children after the appeals court's ruling were Joseph and Lori Jessop, both EMTs in their 20s. The monogamous couple's children—two boys and a girl, ages 1, 2, and 4—became ill during their state-imposed separation and had to be hospitalized.

When the kids were released from the hospital, caseworkers literally pulled the two older children from their mother. Until a judge intervened, CPS threatened to take the youngest child as well, saying nursing babies older than 12 months were not allowed to remain with their mothers.

Not surprisingly, the Jessops' older children were anxious in the days after they were returned to their parents, waking up repeatedly during the night and displaying regressive behavior. There was never any evidence that their parents abused them, but there's plenty that the state did.

Senior Editor Jacob Sullum writes a weekly syndicated column.

© Copyright 2008 by Creators Syndicate Inc.