“Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all My decrees, he will surely live.”
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (or FLDS) is a splinter faction of the mainstream Mormon faith, that broke off over the issue of polygamy (actually, technically, polygyny, since only men are allowed to have multiple spouses), a practice that was abolished by the Mormon church in 1890. The FLDS retreated to the margins, living in self-sufficient communities along the Utah-Arizona border. For the most part, authorities left the FLDS alone, with the spectacular exception of a botched raid in 1954 that was roundly condemned across the country for its ham-handedness. In recent years, however, the FLDS came under the leadership of the thoroughly despicable Warren Jeffs, a classic cult-leader in every sense of the word. Ruling as an absolute dictator, with the power to condemn his enemies to eternal damnation, Jeffs decided who got married to whom and when. He even reserved the right to punish men by “reassigning” their wives and children to others. Taking advantage of the traditional communalistic lifestyle, Jeffs looted money from the faithful and used church ownership of all real property to threaten dissenters with instant homelessness. He also apparently, astonishingly, managed to wrangle a multi-million dollar, no-bid defense contract with the United States government. The self-proclaimed “President and Prophet, Seer and Revelator, President of the Priesthood” also presided over “spiritual marriages” of girls as young as 14, and was accused by his own family of sexually assaulting young girls and boys, and of running off teenage boys from the community to reduce competition for extra wives. On November 20, 2007, he was sentenced to ten years to life in prison by a Utah court for being an accomplice to two rapes. Before then, however, his followers purchased a 1,700 acre ranch near Eldorado in Schleicher County, Texas, where a new temple was built and a community established, “Yearning for Zion” or YFZ. As a direct result of the appearance of the FLDS, the Texas Legislature raised the legal age for marriage with parental consent from 14 to 16. Beyond these few established facts, things get rather murky. On March 30, 2008, authorities received a number of hoax telephone calls from a mentally-disturbed woman in Colorado, who claimed to be a sixteen year old girl named “Sarah” living at the YFZ Ranch and abused by her 50-year-old husband, Dale Barlow. Some court testimony and statements by law enforcement suggest that authorities were aware that “Sarah” was a hoax and that Dale Barlow was actually in Arizona. Nevertheless, on April 3, 2008, four days after the authorities were notified of the supposed “emergency,” a search warrant for Dale Barlow was executed by a massive contingent of law-enforcement officers, including armored personnel carriers from the Midland Police Department. In a bizarre reversal of normal Department of Family & Protective Services (DFPS) policy, caseworkers did not remove the alleged abusers (a relatively small number of adult men) but instead removed the victims, some 450 or more children. The exact number varies, as DFPS contends that some of the girls who are claiming to be adults are actually children. In another strange departure, DFPS allowed some of the mothers to go with the children when they were removed. Normally, a child is not removed from the home at all unless it is shown that being around the parents would endanger the child’s physical or emotional health. The women and children were warehoused in Fort Concho, a 140 year old cavalry fort. They were then shuffled off to a football stadium. Then, the mother’s cell phones were seized, allegedly because of fears the women were communicating with their husbands. I have yet to find any authority cited for this government seizure of the private property of private citizens who aren’t even under arrest. Continuing with the confusion, the mothers (at least some of them) were then separated from their children, in what eyewitnesses described as a heart-wrenching scene of hysterical children and nursing infants physically removed from their mothers. Now, DFPS has decided that some nursing mothers may stay with their children, provided the children are no more than 12 months old. Evidently, the State of Texas will now dictate the age at which babies must be weaned. A batallion of volunteer lawyers from all across the state descended on San Angelo, the nearest large city, for a removal hearing that can be charitably described as a farce. The courtroom couldn’t accommodate even most of the attorneys that state law says must be appointed to represent removed children. Hundreds had to watch the proceedings through an impenetrable and often inaudible closed-circuit television link. Rather than addressing the individual situations of the children, or even of discreet categories of children, the judge decided the whole thing en masse. The testimony was confusing, contradictory and at times incoherent. The state’s expert witness admitted under cross examination that all he knew about FLDS was what he had learned through the media. Unsuprisingly, the removal was granted and the children, some of whom seem to be suffering ill-health from their trauma, are being dispersed all across the state. In several instances, the children’s attorneys have no idea where their clients are and have been prevented from seeing them or speaking with them. Press releases from the state now claim that some of the children between the ages of 14 and 17 are either pregnant or have had children themselves. At least one girl, age 18, has given birth since being removed. Again, no legal authority has been cited for allowing the state to detain adults who have not even been accused of a crime, much less arrested. As someone who has represented children and parents in such cases over the last ten years, I have to say I am appalled by how badly the state has bungled this operation from the very start, particularly in terms of the flagrant violation of the constitutional rights of the children. However, the information we have so far indicates to me that DFPS should not shoulder all the blame. This has the look of a law enforcement operation, evidently planned well in advance of the hoax telephone tip according to the Schleicher County Sheriff, and DFPS (which does not have the kind of clout it takes to summon such an army of police) was left to scramble in the aftermath. As a result, adults who may have very well preyed on children could go unpunished while the children suffer the consequences.