The children of an isolationist religious sect remained in hiding early this week, more than two weeks after state authorities went to the group’s compound south of Gallup and tried to take two of the children into protective custody.
Meanwhile, some local law enforcement officials are criticizing the action by the state Children, Youth and Families Department, saying it was based on statements of a single witness who has a history of making unfounded allegations to police.
The attempt to remove the children from the Aggressive Christianity Mission Training Corps followed a series of television news reports by Darren White, the state’s former top police official, who recently quit his job as secretary of the Department of Public Safety and is working as a reporter for KRQE-TV, Channel 13.
In reports beginning in December, White compared the group to three cults whose members died in dramatic fashion — either mass suicides or, in the case of Waco, a massive fire.
He also interviewed an unidentified woman who claimed in his reports that children in the sect had been sexually abused and intentionally burned. That interview was the basis of an investigation by New Mexico’s child welfare agency, according to law enforcement officials.
“None of this has been confirmed,” said State Police Capt. Glenn Thomas of Gallup, referring to the woman’s allegations. “They’re taking it from a witness who is shaky.”
White said he stood by his stories but declined to comment for this story.
The woman was identified by authorities as El Phalen, who law enforcement officials said was a member of the group for a short time and is a transient.
Police said Phalen has made unfounded allegations in the past.
“Our department has had one or two cases involving her that turned out to be nothing,” said Johnny Valdez, Cibola County undersheriff.
“I think it’s the department’s opinion that the case should probably have been investigated further” before the state attempted to remove the children, Valdez said.
Last year, Phalen told the Cibola County Sheriff’s Department that her neighbor was trying to kill her. But that turned out not to be true, Valdez said.
The Journal’s efforts to contact Phalen were unsuccessful.
Valdez said Phalen had been kicked out of the sect and might have come forward with stories of child abuse to punish the group.
“In a nutshell, there is no situation,” Valdez said. “I think a lot more bases should have been covered.”
Deborah Hartz, secretary of the state Children, Youth and Families Department, which sought the court order to seize the children, refused to discuss the case. She cited confidentiality laws surrounding child custody cases.
She added, however, “If we receive a referral that kids are in danger, we’re going to check it out.”
Police went to the religious sect’s compound near Fence Lake in Cibola County on Jan. 28 after Hartz’s department won a state District Court order to take the children into custody.
They were told the children had been sent on a field trip to an undisclosed location in Arizona.
Group members said they would bring the children to a Grants courtroom on Feb. 7, but they failed to do so, according to testimony in court last week.
Members of the group face a possible contempt of court charge because of the refusal. A hearing was scheduled today in Grants.
District Attorney Mike Runnels said in a recent interview that he was concerned the state’s child welfare agency didn’t have enough evidence to ask police to take the children. He said the agency also took a risk that the group might react in a shocking manner.
“I think you have to take what happened at Waco and Ruby Ridge and several other places into consideration,” said Runnels, the district attorney for the 13th Judicial District. “I don’t think you just bust into the middle of people’s private affairs without good cause.
“These people are already normally paranoid,” Runnels said. “If you trigger somebody’s paranoia, obviously they’re going to respond in a typical paranoid fashion, which they’ve done” by sending their children into hiding.
Runnels said there was no evidence the group had broken any laws.
“Hey, this is America … if they want to be by themselves, they have a right to do so,” Runnels said.
“I think CYFD need credible evidence of child abuse or neglect before they start asking law enforcement for help,” Runnels said. “You don’t just go off half-cocked.”