When the children came into the interview rooms, they were orderly and respectful. If asked to do something, they did it, without question or backtalk. But when they sat down to talk to authorities about life inside their expansive home out in the country, their stories became guarded, often layered with half-truths.
“When it came to responding to a question, the answers were purposely deceptive,” Dr. Bruce Perry recalled of the behavior of the 21 Branch Davidian children released before the 51-day siege with authorities ended near Waco in a deadly fire in 1993.
Perry, a national expert on child trauma and children living in sects or cults, worked side by side with Texas Child Protective Services when the agency took the Branch Davidian children into custody.
Fifteen years later, the Houston-based psychologist finds himself working with CPS again, this time to advise nearly 300 caseworkers in West Texas about what they’re up against with the 416 children taken from a fundamentalist sect: tough little soldiers for God trained since birth to protect their way of life.
“This is one of the most challenging situations you face in a child protective situation where you have children who are socialized into an abusive lifestyle, yet they feel it is normative,” said Perry, a psychiatrist and senior fellow of ChildTrauma Academy in Houston, a nonprofit that conducts research and provides services for mistreated children.
In an insulated world
The children taken from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado are part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, a group that believes in polygamy. What is known about the group, through those who have left, is that children are conditioned to protect their family against prying eyes and questions from outsiders.
“They have lived in a very insulated world,” said Darrell Azar, spokesman for CPS’ parent agency, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
The children could prove the toughest interview subjects yet for veteran CPS caseworkers, emboldened as they may be by an increase in staff and more money to investigate abuse cases more effectively.
A child who has lived in a restrictive community such as FLDS, where children are told they will risk their souls or be tortured by the mainstream world, can’t help but develop a fear of outsiders, Perry and others say.
“They were told we were the evil people,” recalled Bobby Gilliam, president of Methodist Children’s Home in Waco, the foster care home that took in 20 of the 21 Branch Davidian children.
He remembers how the heart rates of the children were 30 percent to 40 percent higher than normal because of their anxiety. There also was a darkness about the children. All of them had lost a relative, either in the gunfight with federal agents or in the fire.
“They didn’t grieve like normal kids,” Gilliam said. He also recalled how he asked the other children why one girl, about 11 or 12, wore a Star of David. Without blinking an eye, they told him that was what cult leader David Koresh had young girls wear after he had chosen them to be his next wife.
“Their sense that something is wrong is so different that it really poses a challenge for the agency,” Perry said.
In the case of the children from Koresh’s compound, most of them, particularly the older ones, had experience with the outside world and let down their guard faster.
But it was difficult to get them to trust the social workers, Gilliam and Perry said. It was a long time before they divulged details about their lives inside.
“Their behavior is what some might call passive-aggressive,” Perry said. Sect children act cooperative but know how to dodge questions.
And that’s something CPS already is finding out.
On television screens, the pictures of orderly and cooperative women dressed in long skirts leading their children quietly onto buses and away from the YFZ ranch have pulled at the nation’s heartstrings.
But behind the scenes, at interview areas in San Angelo, the setting is somewhat different.
Many of the women have been giving different names every time they are asked. Some caseworkers are finding it tough to interview the children when the women — some of whom are not the child’s birth mothers — are never far from the child. There is a sense among some caseworkers that the children are being told to be quiet and that in a few days everyone will be back home at the ranch.
“They eat together, they sleep together and they even go to the bathroom … as a group,” said one agency official, who asked not to be identified.
Also, there are no birth certificates to help identify so many children, and the women are seen often on cell phones, talking to the men still at the ranch and letting them know the state’s every move.
Despite the obstacles, CPS, an agency used to tremendous pressure from lawmakers, families and the public at large, believes it is up to the task.
“They know what’s at stake,” the agency official said.
What’s at stake is the credibility of the agency overhauled three years ago after highly publicized child deaths occurred in 2004 on CPS’ watch.
In 2005, lawmakers approved $200 million in reforms that added 848 caseworkers, gave them high-tech tools such as laptops and digital cameras, increased pay, and created more specialized investigative jobs so that parents accused of child abuse couldn’t disappear in the night. It was an attempt to curb a surging caseload that had workers juggling up to 50 child abuse cases a month.
A hearing coming up
CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said the move of nearly 1,000 staff to West Texas won’t strain the system.
Perry believes the state can do it, but says CPS has much ground to cover before the April 17 hearing where it will tell the judge how much evidence it has collected so far to bolster the agency’s case that child abuse occurred at the sect’s ranch.
An affidavit released this week provided details of what prompted the government raid.
In it, CPS states how a 16-year-old girl at the ranch, the seventh wife to a man three times her age, began making cell phone calls to a women’s shelter. She told workers that she was forced to become a wife and mother at 15, was beaten by her husband and feared for her life.
It was the teary near recantation the girl made in her last call March 30 that shows the agency what it’s up against: a powerful collective that has trained its young to give up their comforts for the good of their society. CPS has not found the teen among the 416.
“At the conclusion of this conversation, she began crying and then stated that she is happy and fine and does not want to get into trouble and that everything she had previously said should be forgotten,” the affidavit stated.
For CPS, their task will be arduous these next seven days.
“The normal sense of being accountable to authority that is present with children in our culture is not present in their culture,” Perry said. “They don’t view us as legitimate authority.”
Sidebar — About the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sect:
• Since the early 20th century, the home base of the church has been the twin border towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah. It also has enclaves in Colorado, South Dakota, Texas and British Columbia.
• Members believe plural marriage brings exaltation in heaven. The doctrine is tied to the early teachings of Joseph Smith, who founded the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830 and began teaching polygamy in 1843. He reportedly married more than 30 women.
• The Mormon church abandoned polygamy as a condition of Utah statehood in 1890.
• There are an estimated 40,000 fundamentalists practicing polygamy across the Intermountain West in organized churches and independently. FLDS, the largest-known polygamous sect, has membership estimated at 6,000 based on the census and incorporated as a church in the 1940s.
• Members are discouraged from contact with outsiders and appear caught between two centuries. Women wear prairie-style clothing and men are covered from ankle to wrist, but families have minivans and cell phones.
• The FLDS marriages are arranged by the church president, who is also described as a prophet.
Houston Belief — Faith news from the Houston Chronicle