Civil Liberties

Child Brides and Mass Kidnapping


Last week the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services issued a report (PDF) that seeks to justify its seizure of 439 children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado last spring, a mass kidnapping that the Texas Supreme Court unanimously ruled was legally unjustified. The report, which one critic fairly calls "self-justifying claptrap," highlights the department's unwillingness to admit mistakes, let alone apologize for the harm it did to the children it supposedly was trying to protect.

Last May the department's Child Protective Services (CPS) division claimed it had found 31 underage girls who were pregnant or mothers at the ranch, which is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). In last week's report the tally has shrunk to seven, plus five more girls who were "spiritually married" between the ages of 12 and 15. The state is prosecuting 12 members of the polygamous sect, presumably the men married to those girls, for various offenses, including bigamy and sexual abuse. But since the raid that obtained evidence of these relationships was based on a false abuse report, it's not clear how those cases will fare.

Notably, the report says seven of the 12 girls were 14 or 15 when they married, which means they would have been old enough under the law as it stood prior to 2005, when the state legislature raised the minimum marriage age to 16 with the avowed aim of making life in Texas difficult for the FLDS. Until then the minimum age for marriage with parental permission was 14. (The marriages in question took places between 2004 and 2006.) Still, assuming the allegations are true, FLDS members broke even the old law in a handful of cases.

The question is whether those offenses justified the wholesale removal of every child at the ranch, including infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and teenage boys, who were forcibly separated from their parents for two months. The state's theory, which the courts correctly rejected, was that raising children according to FLDS beliefs was inherently abusive. In the report, the state argues that parents who knew about the underage brides yet remained part of the community were guilty of neglect. To which FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop replies:

For Texas CPS and law-enforcement officials to continue to make disturbing and unfounded allegations of abuse and neglect is nothing more than an attempt to justify their own barbaric actions…The Eldorado Investigation Report…is as false and fraudulent as the original hoax telephone call that triggered the raid.

Jessop conspicuously does not address the question of underage marriages (a practice the church officially disavowed after the raid), but his statement, headlined "YFZ Raid Was Never Justified," rings mostly true, especially with regard to the state's ever-shifting allegations. "When has CPS ever told the truth?" he asks. "They have never acknowledged their former inaccurate statements. They have no credibility."

One especially egregious example: The Salt Lake Tribune notes that the report provides no evidence to support the state's reckless allegations of bone-breaking physical abuse:

The department also alleged some children experienced physical abuse or neglect. It later said X-rays showed 41 children had previously had broken bones. But the final report says there is no evidence of physical abuse in 388 cases; it was unable to complete or make a determination in another 11 cases.

Jessop notes that the rate of fractures among Yearning for Zion children was "considerably lower than the national average." The insinuations about beatings that never occurred were of a piece with the state's general response to criticism of the FLDS raid. While at least some of the officials responsible for this $12.4 million fiasco presumably were sincerely concerned about the welfare of the FLDS children, that concern was quickly subsumed by the perceived need to justify their actions and cover their asses.

My columns about the Yearning for Zion case are here and here.