Mental health workers sent to emergency shelters in San Angelo last month to help care for the hundreds of women and children removed from a polygamist sect’s West Texas ranch have sharply criticized the Child Protective Services operation, telling their governing board it unnecessarily traumatized the kids.
The CPS investigation of suspected child abuse and its decision to seek state custody of all 464 children punished mothers who appeared to be good parents of healthy, well-behaved and emotionally normal kids, workers said in a set of short and unsigned written reports made at the request of the board after a briefing Tuesday.
All nine reports by employees of the Hill Country Community Mental Health-Mental Retardation Center expressed varying degrees of anger toward the state’s child welfare agency for removing the children from their community, separating them from their mothers or for the way CPS workers conducted themselves at the shelter.
A few described ongoing tension between the two groups of social workers, including threats by CPS to have interfering MHMR workers arrested.
“I have worked in Domestic Violence/Sexual Abuse programming for over 20 years and have never seen women and children treated this poorly, not to mention their civil rights being disregarded in this manner,” one wrote.
The workers spent several days in San Angelo, some shortly after the April 3 search of the Yearning for Zion Ranch prompted by a sexual abuse complaint, during the chaotic opening of a shelter in the city’s coliseum, or in the days leading up to the children’s dispersal to foster care facilities across the state later that month.
“The entire MH support staff was ‘fired’ the second week; we were sent home due to being ‘too compassionate,’ ” one report stated.
The state has argued that enough evidence of “spiritual marriages,” pregnancy and childbirth by underage girls at the ranch exists to seek permanent removal of all the children from their parents because of the risk of child abuse.
The compound was built to house members of a breakaway Mormon sect called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
To respond to the allegations, CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said via e-mail: “We have received no complaints from Hill Country MHMR. However, we will be looking into what are obviously very serious allegations, and sharing these allegations with other agencies as appropriate.”
The MHMR workers helped staff large shelters in San Angelo where mothers were at first allowed to stay with the children. Only mothers of younger children were allowed to remain after the first few days.
All the MHMR workers described themselves as impressed by the mothers they worked with. Many of them described child welfare workers as high-handed, rude or uncaring toward the mothers and overzealous in their concerns that they might escape or harm their keepers.
Two reported that the CPS workers were friendly and compassionate.
Three reported that CPS workers lied to the mothers; one described it as a tactic to make separating them from their children go easier. Several said the mothers were denied access to their lawyers.
Some of the MHMR workers said the crowded conditions at the shelter allowed upper respiratory infections and chicken pox to spread rapidly and many noted the shelter’s other discomforts. One described it as deliberate, a form of coercion to aid the investigation: “The more uncomfortable they were the more CPS thought they would talk.”
Needed to communicate
Kevin Dinnin, the president of Baptist Children and Family Services who served as incident commander at the shelter under a contract between his agency and the state, said he couldn’t confirm many of the allegations made by the MHMR workers.
“Some of it is unfounded,” he said. “Some of it is accurate, depending on your point of view. Were the shelters crowded? Yeah. But it’s a shelter. And yes, CPS workers were taking notes and listening. Yes, they were always around. I’m not defending CPS, but it’s hard to give people privacy in a shelter.”
The CPS and the MHMR staff could have reduced tensions with better communication, Dinnin said.
The written statements were given to the Hill Country MHMR board anonymously because the workers had signed agreements not to disclose what they had seen, said board member Jack Dawson.
“What they saw was so horrendous, they had to report it to the board,” said Dawson, a Comal County commissioner. “I have every confidence their stories are accurate. Our people are professionals, with years and years of service in their fields.”
Board President John Kite said the entire board was upset by the reports. He said he is trying to get Gov. Rick Perry to meet with the workers.
“We were literally astounded at what they told us,” Kite said. “They are trampling all over human decency and those people’s civil rights. … We should not just sit here and let it happen.”
Express-News staff writer Nancy Martinez contributed to this report.