Mothers of some of the 400 children taken into custody from a polygamous religious sect made a dramatic public plea as well as a legal appeal in court today to stop their kids from being sent into state foster homes.
“SOS Help Us – We’ve been separated from our children,” read a sign hung from a bus that took some of the mothers from the San Angelo Coliseum, where they have been staying with the children, back to the sect’s ranch.
More than 100 of the children were moved into temporary foster homes earlier this week after a judge ruled at a massive, group custody hearing that all the children should remain in temporary state custody. The rest of the children are expected to be placed in group homes by the end of the week.
The women who were removed today were mothers to some of the youngest children in state custody. The court had previously removed all the mothers except those who had children under the age of 5.
After today, the only mothers allowed to remain with their kids were those whose children were under one year old and nursing, or mothers who were minors themselves.
A state appeals court has agreed to hear arguments next week over whether the state can place the children into temporary foster care without giving each family an individual hearing.
“These families have the right to have their voices heard in the legal process,” said Robert Doggett, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which filed the appeal. “The idea that these children can be taken away without giving their families the opportunity to address allegations and fight to stay together is absurd.”
But, despite the court’s decision to hold a hearing, the state appeared to be proceeding with its plan to place the children in temporary homes by the end of the week.
As the children settle into their new foster homes, their temporary caregivers are careful how they introduce them to a whole new world.
First rule: no TV yet.
Foster homes and shelters across the state are scrambling to accommodate 437 children who have until now lived a largely isolated life on the Yearning for Zion Ranch, a sprawling 1,700-acre compound in West Texas.
“These kids don’t know who the president is. Don’t know that we’re at war. Don’t know who Elvis was, don’t know who the Beatles were,” said Bobby Gilliam, director of the Methodist Children’s home in Waco, Texas, where some of the children will be staying.
Many of the children have lived a radically different life from the other kids in the state’s foster homes. The state Child Protective Services program has said it chose foster homes where the youngsters can be kept apart from other children for now.
The 50 girls who will be coming to the Methodist home in Waco will be woken up at the crack of dawn and given chores similar to what they did on the ranch. It will take time before they are ready to mix with other children and watch TV, Gilliam said.
Social workers are also being given a list of dos and don’ts for how to deal with children who may not have ever seen television and who were raised in a culture that the state says encourages underage girls to marry older men. Sect members deny the allegation.
Among the rules: don’t ask about their religion, don’t press if the children avoid eye contact and don’t allow them to use cell phones.
Judge Barbara Walther, who ordered the children kept in temporary state custody, said that siblings should be kept together, that babies younger than 1 should stay with their mothers and that breast-feeding mothers with children between the ages of 1 and 2 should be allowed to live near their toddlers.
But the logistics of placing more than 400 children into foster homes is proving to be a nightmare.
Mary Golder, an attorney for five sisters from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, said one was left behind.
“It would be devastating for this 4-year-old to be separated from her sisters and sent to live in Houston with strangers,” she said.
State officials admit this will be difficult but insist it is necessary.
“No matter how badly a child is abused they always want to be with their parent. Unfortunately that is not always in their best interest,” said Darrell Azar, a Child Protective Services spokesman.
The children were taken into state custody by Texas authorities who raided the FLDS ranch after they said a person claiming to be a 16-year-old girl called a hot line to report that she was being abused by her 49-year-old husband.
The children are being housed until they have individual status hearings. Some children could be placed in permanent foster care. Some parents who have left the sect may win custody, while some kids may be allowed to return to the ranch in Eldorado.
In a related development, court documents unsealed Wednesday revealed that a phone number used to allege abuse at the ranch is associated with a woman in Colorado who has been accused of making several unrelated false abuse claims in calls to authorities.
An arrest warrant affidavit said 33-year-old Rozita Swinton had previously used a phone number to call the crisis hot line in Texas that received the calls prompting the raid.
The calls came before authorities raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch on April 3, but it was not clear whether authorities believe Swinton made the calls that triggered the raid.
Swinton has not been arrested for allegedly making calls to the Texas shelter. She was arrested last week on charges of making a false report in an unrelated case.
The affidavit details dozens of calls from late 2006 through April 2008 to abuse centers and police departments in Washington, Colorado and Texas.
The callers always identified themselves as a young girl, at various times calling herself Dana, April, V, Jennifer and Sarah Barlow. Sarah Barlow is the name of the 16-year-old who called the Texas crisis center.
The Colorado court documents say that a phone number associated with Swinton, who has been named by Texas Rangers as a “person of interest” in their investigation, was “possibly related to the reporting party for the YFZ ranch incident.”
The affidavit says that in one call to a safe house in Colorado, a person calling herself Dana said she had been sexually abused. Dana told the safe house counselor in February 2008 that she and Rozita were different personalities who lived in the same body, according to the affidavit.
Dana then told the counselor to call back on Rozita’s number and gave Swinton’s home phone number, the affidavit says.
Another number that was used to call the Texas abuse hot line has been linked to a man named Courtney Swinton, who lives in the same apartment building with Rozita Swinton, according to the affidavit.
During some of the 28 calls made to a Washington shelter using the Courtney Swinton phone number, the caller claimed to be 16-year-old Sarah Barlow and said she was being held at the YFZ ranch.
The caller said she had gotten married at age 14 to Dale Barlow, the same man identified by the Sarah Barlow who called the Texas shelter, as her husband.
She also said she feared her “sister wives” at the ranch would take her baby away if she revealed her real identity, the affidavit says.