FLDS custody case ends for some children; starts for others. Evidence hearing may include hoax caller. Plus: Lessons of the Short Creek raid.
Aug. 16, 2008 News Summary
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Monday August 18, 2008
Following are some developments regarding the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), the largest of many polygamous sects of the Mormon Church.
Texas ends cases involving 34 polygamist sect kids
SAN ANTONIO — Custody cases involving 34 children taken from a polygamist sect’s West Texas ranch have been dropped because child welfare authorities no longer believe court oversight is needed, an agency spokeswoman said Friday.
Child Protective Services filed paperwork in San Angelo on Thursday asking that the cases involving 10 families be dropped, and Texas District Judge Barbara Walther agreed, said CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner.
The action does not necessarily end the agency’s involvement with the families but means officials believe the children can be kept safe without court intervention, she said.
While the reasons vary, child welfare cases are typically dropped when investigators decide there is no abuse, or if there is, that parents or another relative can ensure a child’s safety, Meisner said.
In June, Texas authorities were forced by the state Supreme Court to return roughly 440 children swept into foster care from the Yearning For Zion Ranch. The court said the action was overly broad, given the relatively limited evidence of abuse the agency presented in the chaotic April court hearing that covered all the children.
Meanwhile, investigations into the actions of the sect are continuing.
Court lets CPS end oversight of 34 FLDS children
Since the children were returned, five FLDS men, including the group’s imprisoned leader, Warren Jeffs, have been charged with felony counts of sexual abusing a child. A sixth, the group’s doctor, was charged with three misdemeanor counts of failing to report child abuse.
Last week, armed with new evidence, the agency returned to court to again seek custody, but this time only of eight children, six girls and two boys ages 5 to 17. The agency said it was doing so either because they lived in households that refused to condemn underage marriages or were actively involved in the practice.
Walthers will hold hearings on that request beginning Monday in San Angelo.
CPS is still deciding what to do with the 400 or so pending cases.
Texas officials want 8 sect kids back in custody
SAN ANGELO, Texas — More than two months after being forced to return children from a polygamist sect to their parents, Texas child welfare authorities want eight of the youngsters put back in foster care.
Individual hearings for the four mothers of the children, ranging in age from 5 to 17, are set to begin Monday.
Child Protective Services has asked Texas District Judge Barbara Walther to return the children to foster care because their mothers allegedly have refused to limit their contact with men accused of being involved in underage marriages.
None of the children currently live at the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, where authorities swept roughly 440 children into foster care in April.
Rod Parker, a church spokesman, said that even though the families are getting individual hearings this time, the argument that they shouldn’t be allowed to retain custody of their children remains unfair.
The issue, as it was in the earlier case, is “whether the children are in any immediate danger simply because their parents choose to raise them in this religion,” he said. “The substance of what they’re doing here is fundamentally the same.”
Parker also noted that the church issued a statement in June saying it would not bless underage marriages.
The FLDS church believes polygamy brings glory in heaven. It is a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which officially renounced polygamy more than a century ago.
Swinton may be witness in FLDS evidence challenge
SAN ANGELO, Texas — A judge here has set an Oct. 1 hearing on a challenge to the law-enforcement search of the Fundamentalist LDS Church’s YFZ Ranch.
Note: as a newspaper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon Church), the Deseret News never refers to the FLDS by its proper name: Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but rather uses the terms “FLDS Church” or “Fundamentalist LDS Church.”
Theologically, the FLDS is a sect of Mormonism. Both movements are, theologically, cults of Christianity due to the fact that their teachings and practices contradict, change, and/or otherwise violate essential doctrines of the Christian faith.
Among those who could be witnesses at the contentious hearing: the woman who allegedly made hoax calls that sparked the raid on the polygamous sect’s property in west Texas. Rozita Swinton’s name appears on a list of potential witnesses subpoenaed for either testimony or documents, according to court records obtained by the Deseret News.
Lawyers for the FLDS Church and one of its leaders, Lyle Jeffs, filed the subpoena request in court in late April. Their list of possible witnesses include workers at San Angelo’s New-Bridge Family Shelter, Texas Rangers involved in the initial investigation into the phone call that sparked the raid, FLDS members at the YFZ Ranch, Swinton and documents pertaining to a series of cell phone numbers linked to her.
FLDS Church attorneys recently renewed their challenge to the seizure of evidence, urging the judge to set a hearing date.
They are demanding that the search warrants and evidence be tossed, questioning the grounds for the search and suggesting that anything seized may fall under priest-penitent privilege between FLDS leaders and followers.
Nearly 1,000 boxes of evidence were seized in the April raid on the YFZ Ranch. Authorities have been poring over thousands of pages of documents, including dictations by FLDS leader Warren Jeffs in which he details alleged underage marriages. Some of that evidence has become public in court records used by Texas child welfare authorities.
In discussions about the April, 2008, raid on the FLDS’ Yearning For Zion ranch in Texas, people often refer to a 1953 raid on Short Creek, Arizona — the sect’s polygamous town that has since been renamed as Colorado City. That raid backfired, which in turn led to a situation where — until a few years ago — abuses inside the polygamous sect were allowed to continue relatively unchecked.
Jaimee Rose, researcher at The Arizona Republic, takes a longer look at the Short Creek Raid and its aftermath:
How Arizona’s polygamist raid paved the way to Texas
It’s hard to see your way in polygamist country, always has been. The nights are dark, and street lamps rare or absent altogether. The people prefer to be guided by God’s light, leaning on the moon and stars to show the way.
The first time the children were taken, in the summer of 1953, police crept into town beneath an eclipsed moon. A trail of sedans bounced over the muddy road from Fredonia to Short Creek, Ariz., with headlights dimmed. Their mission hinged on surprising the polygamists before they could flee. Overhead, a full moon glowed with a ruddy red light then faded slowly into the Earth’s shadow.
The airwaves hummed in the dark. Ham-radio operators were carrying messages from Gov. Howard Pyle to the police and relaying news from Short Creek’s sheriff to the Arizona attorney general. Pyle had vowed to shatter the serenity of Short Creek, where nary a girl had reached age 15 “without having been forced into a shameful mockery of marriage,” he said.
Over the radios, the ham operators forecast a grim scene: Signal lanterns burned high on the red sandstone cliffs above, and the Short Creek schoolyard was filling with men armed with clubs, vowing to spill blood in the name of God.
But when the police pummeled into town at 4 that morning, their sirens piercing the last hour of darkness, they found the town tranquil instead. The polygamists were gathered in the schoolyard singing America, with children playing at their feet.
“Our father’s God to Thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing. Long may our land be bright with Freedom’s holy light, protect us by thy might, Great God, our King.”
The police seized the women and children, and hoarded the men into jails. Short Creek was emptied, but the polygamists’ faith was filled. The raid was a test from God, they said, and the faithful would rise up, armed with all the strength of their Lord.
Now, 55 years after the Short Creek raid, the nation is deep into another invasion of polygamist country, in Eldorado, Texas. And this time, it’s even harder to see the way. Should the law spare families or save children, prosecute polygamy or look the other way?
And there’s the matter of freedom’s holy light, which shines even on the darkest nights across that ranch in Texas. The right to worship is one of America’s most precious liberties, but are the parents at that ranch earnestly permitting their children that same freedom to choose?
The ethics here are treacherous and the road to the end looks labyrinthine and long, but buried deep in the tale of the Short Creek raid is a map, of sorts. This has happened before, right down to children clutching their mothers’ skirts and polygamists suffering in song. The story of Short Creek offers a glimpse at an arduous path to come.
For all the darkness that enclosed them that night, the people of Short Creek saw things clearly. It was a test, to be sure, but of polygamists and Pyle alike, a test of the law and the Lord. The Short Creek folks believed they were right about him, too, for whether the families found fortitude in God or in their own hearts, they did rise up, stronger than before.
It’s hard to see your way in polygamist country, and the most dangerous pathway through this, says Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, is the one that came before.
Arizona and Utah officials have carefully worked to carve exit routes from Colorado City for those who want to leave. They established the Safety Net Committee to help domestic-violence victims, and on the road into Colorado City, a large billboard now advertises a “safe talk” hotline.
But “if they fear us more than they do their abusers, they’re never going to seek help,” Shurtleff says. “It’s this fear of government they’ve been taught from the cradle – ‘See what happened in ’53? If you seek help, they’ll come and take everybody.’ We keep telling them, ‘No, no, no. If someone needs help, we’ll handle that one case. There won’t be a raid.’
“And now the polygamists are saying, ‘See, we told you, we told you it would happen again,’ ” Shurtleff says.
There’s another force at work here, too, a kind of unlikely glory that comes each time the police knock on the polygamists’ doors.
Nothing makes a religion like a martyr. The Bible leans on the stories of those who put faith first, who sacrificed their freedom and their families, who laid down their lives for the Lord. Through all their persecution, the polygamists talk of nothing but strength.
“The outside pressure from the government only reinforces their convictions,” says Driggs, “reinforces the belief that ‘We are God’s chosen people, and we are going to be persecuted for living God’s laws.’ ”
In the polygamists’ darkest hours, they say, the light shines more brightly on the pathway to God.
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