HOUSTON — Most of the 439 children taken from their polygamist parents in West Texas have been released from court oversight, but a child abuse investigation into their care slowly moves into its seventh month.
So far, lawsuits needed to remove 402 of the children taken from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado in April have been dismissed.
Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for the Texas Department of Child Protective Services, said, “It means that CPS can still be involved but there’s no reason for an active lawsuit.”
That leaves 37 children still under court oversight.
So far, 174 of the 200 FLDS parents of the seized children have completed the parenting classes mandated by CPS. But it’s unknown if that includes any of the parents of the 37 children still monitored by state District Judge Barbara Walther.
Meanwhile, the case continues to proceed in the criminal arena. Grand jurors in Eldorado’s Schleicher County so far have indicted nine FLDS members, all men, including jailed leader Warren Jeffs. They have been charged with bigamy, sexual assault of a child, or both.
Another grand jury panel will meet in Schleicher County in November, and the first pretrial hearing is scheduled for Dec. 1.
SAN ANTONIO — The massive custody case that swept 439 children from a polygamist sect’s West Texas ranch into foster care has largely evaporated, with Texas authorities dropping all but a few dozen cases against parents.
All but 37 children from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado have been released from court oversight after Child Protective Services found they had not been abused or that their parents could protect them from the risk of future abuse. Only one girl has been returned to foster care.
The dismissals are good news because it means the children can safely remain with their parents, that questions about their safety have been resolved, said CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins.
“CPS has taken a lot of criticism for this operation since April, but we’ve been doing everything we can to work with these families to ensure positive outcomes,” he said. “If they’re safe to the point where court oversight is no longer necessary, that’s great news.”
Authorities raided the ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in April after someone claiming to be an abused underaged mother called a domestic abuse hotline. Those calls are now being investigated as a possible hoax.
Following the raid, CPS swept all the children into state custody — one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history — claiming underage girls were being forced into marriages and sex and that the other children were at risk of abuse. They treated the ranch, which has more than a dozen sprawling homes, as a single household where the alleged abuse of some children justified the removal of the others in the residence.
The Texas Supreme Court later ruled CPS had overreached by putting all the children into foster care when it could show no more than a handful of girls may have been abused.
The ruling did not, however, end court’s oversight of the children, even as they were returned from foster care to their parents. The parents were ordered to take parenting classes and cooperate with CPS investigators, and they could not leave the state.
One by one, the state has been dropping the children from court oversight.
CPS is separately completing investigations into whether each child was abused or neglected. The findings from that investigation are expected to be released next month. Even if abuse is found to have occurred previously, parents who can assure the child will now remain safe can be released from court oversight.
FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said the dismissal of the cases proves what the church has said all along, that the children were not abused. The cases that remain in court are there because of varying qualities of legal representation, not because of actual abuse, he said.
While the parents and children can legally return to the YFZ Ranch, few have, Jessop said. With almost no one working over the spring and summer in the sprawling garden and dairy they used to feed the community, the ranch doesn’t have the supply of food and resources it once did.
FLDS communities hold much of their goods in common, and members have work duties within the community. That lifestyle was disrupted by the state when parents moved to individual homes around Texas in an effort to get their children back, Jessop said.
“They disrupted the community and its ability to function as it was,” he said, noting community members may now have to seek public assistance they never needed when the garden and dairy were fully operational.
Eight FLDS members, including jailed sect leader Warren Jeffs, have been indicted for sexual assault of a child, allegations stemming from marriages to underage girls. Several face additional charges of bigamy.
FORT WORTH (CBS 11 News) — CBS 11 News is the first television station to return to the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) ranch in West Texas since children, taken from their parents six months ago, were returned.
CBS 11 News reporter Jack Fink was allowed inside the polygamist compound to see what life there is like today.
Residents on the 1700 acre Yearning for Zion Ranch (YFZ) in Eldorado, say their lives changed forever last April. That’s when hundreds of law enforcement officers raided their home and Texas Child Protective Services (CPS) removed all 439 of their children.
Ben Barlow, 26, a member of the FLDS says, “I miss the way it used to be. The state has come in and done nothing but abuse their power, break up families, and it will never be back to normal.”
Barlow has lived on the ranch for four years now. He says his wife and their three young children were out of state during the raid and now he won’t allow them to return.
According to Barlow, CPS has left small children emotionally scarred. “It’s amazing to have 4-year-old to 6-year-old girls scared of CPS,” he said. Fink wanted further explanation and asked, “When you say scared, what do you mean?” “Run to their bedrooms… close the windows… shut the blinds…” Barlow explained.
Susan Hays is a Dallas attorney ad litem and represents a two-year-old girl on the ranch. Hays’ says she has seen children act out. “Younger children who’ve regressed to wetting their beds. Toddlers who’ve regressed to wanting to breast feed, when they’ve already been weaned,” Hays said. “They pulled off the raid very well, but they didn’t pull off the cleanup well at all.”
So what does CPS say about accusations the raid left the FLDS children with emotional scars? Spokesman Patrick Crimmins says the children received the best care the state could provide including mental health and medical screenings.
Crimmins says this is the largest and most extensive child custody case in state history, and that it was all in an effort to protect children.
Hays says once girls become 10-years-old, the state will no longer allow their fathers to live in the same house. “The girls are very upset about it. Every 9, 10, 11-year-old girl knows that rule and they don’t like it,” she claims. Crimmins couldn’t confirm that the state will require the fathers to move.
Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran says, “It just points out there was this problem out there.”
Doran says the grand jury may indict others. “Women, I’m not sure. But that’s a point of investigation. They were a part of handing their daughters over to an older man,” he said.
Despite everything that’s happened, Barlow says its part of their religion for older men to marry underage girls. He had this interchange with reporter Jack Fink.
Fink: “It’s against the law… having an underage girl marry an older man.”
Barlow: “That’s true, that’s true. But the state says you must put on your seatbelt. Do you always wear your seatbelt? Not always. If the girls choose to, heaven bless them. That’s none of my business what they choose to do.”
F ink: “Do they have a choice?”
Barlow: “Yes, they do.”
Fink: “So they can say no, ‘I don’t want to marry an older man’?”
Barlow: “Yes, they can.”
The Dallas FBI is conducting its own separate investigation and congressional investigators are also looking into the FLDS.