Child Protective Services officials this week defended their decision to remove hundreds of children from the Eldorado ranch run by a polygamous sect, saying that the group’s communal living situation required the removal of all the children in the face of evidence of sexual abuse.
The agency also argued that individual hearings on placing each child in foster care were not necessary and that the mothers’ “conspiracy of silence” left a West Texas judge no other choice but to hold a mass hearing.
The statements, in documents mailed Thursday to the Third Court of Appeals in Austin, were the most specific yet in explaining the state’s rationale for its actions in the case. The filings came in response to a lawsuit filed by 48 mothers who have sued the state seeking the return of their children. Lawyers for the agency that oversees CPS asked the court to reject the request.
The 464 children removed from the ranch owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints were placed in foster care around Texas last month after a state investigation found a pattern of young girls being forced into “spiritual marriages” with older men.
“The investigation revealed that the children appeared to have a pervasive belief that when the prophet, Uncle Merrill, decided for them to be married, they would be married,” CPS lawyers wrote. “No age was too young to be spiritually married, and the young girls wanted to have as many babies as they could.”
Attorneys for the mothers responded in court documents filed Friday, saying CPS did not have sufficient evidence “to justify the mass separation of every single child” from his or her mother. “To distract attention from this inconvenient fact,” the mothers’ lawyers wrote, the agency focuses “on the mothers’ purported beliefs, rather than on their actions or omissions.”
Responding to the mothers’ complaint that the department failed to show that many of the children, such as boys and very young girls, were in danger, agency attorneys wrote that the state “is not required to show that a majority of the children at the (ranch) were at risk due to sexual abuse, or that the evidence pertains to the parents of the majority of the children.”
According to state law, when deciding whether a child is in danger, a court may consider whether the household includes a person who has sexually abused another child.
“Since the occupants of the ranch consider themselves as living in one large home or community, (agency investigations supervisor Angie) Voss had concerns for all the children there,” CPS lawyers wrote.
Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorneys representing the mothers argued in an April 30 court document that the state’s “expansive definition of ‘household’ defies common sense.”
The agency also argued that it would have been impossible to remove alleged perpetrators instead of children.
“How could the Department have identified the alleged perpetrator or perpetrators when the evidence demonstrated that the entire male and female population at the (Yearning for Zion) Ranch had been enculturated into the belief that under-age marriage was sacrosanct?”
The mothers contended that a mass hearing in Judge Barbara Walther’s San Angelo courtroom was unfair. But CPS lawyers argued that the mothers’ decision to intentionally confuse the children’s identity left the judge no other choice. State officials have said the mothers and children gave conflicting statements about their names and relationships and tampered with state-issued ID bracelets.
The mothers, “by throwing up a wall of deception and engaging in a conspiracy of silence, waived their rights to individual hearings,” the lawyers wrote.
Also, the department argued, for Walther to have conducted hundreds of separate hearings “would have been, at the very least, an extraordinary waste of judicial resources, as well as being a logistical nightmare.”
State officials argued that the April hearing was fair, saying that the mothers had ample opportunity to cross-examine the state’s witnesses.
Meanwhile, at a town hall meeting Thursday night about polygamy in St. George, Utah, that state’s attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, assured residents that such a Texas-style raid would not happen there.
He also said his office is looking into helping Utah residents serve as foster parents to Texas FLDS children in their family, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. CPS does sometimes place children in foster care out of state.
Spokesman Patrick Crimmins said the agency has information about possible out-of-state relatives of the FLDS children. “It is being reviewed,” he said.