AUSTIN — Child welfare officials were up against a culture of secrecy, unlimited resources and sect members well-schooled in the art of misleading authorities as they tried to build their case for removing hundreds of children from a West Texas polygamist enclave, religious experts and former adherents say.
Thursday’s appeals court decision that many if not all of the children removed from the Yearning For Zion ranch last month must be returned to their parents highlights how difficult it is to build a child welfare case against a fundamentalist religious group, sect investigators say — particularly without a vocal victim.
The 450 children remain in state custody while the Texas Supreme Court decides whether to take up the case. But the legal challenge has kindled quiet debate over whether Texas authorities should deal with polygamist groups as states such as Utah and Arizona have done: trying to win cooperation rather than raiding communities and prosecuting members en masse.
“These are people who have been taught from the cradle that outsiders are bad, that government is evil, until they fear us more than they fear their abusers,” said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
Added Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard: “Step by step, we’ve tried to make sure that people … understood what the rules were, understood what we were going to prosecute and that we weren’t going to condemn them just for their lifestyle.”
‘No reliable evidence’
Leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints vehemently deny misleading state officials. Lying is not part of their culture, they say — privacy is.
“The record’s clearly going to show what the deceptions were and who lied to whom,” said sect leader Willie Jessop, referring to state investigators.
CPS officials, citing the ongoing legal battle, declined to discuss specifics of the case. But in a filing to the Texas Supreme Court on Friday, lawyers for Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services said collecting evidence was extraordinarily difficult. Girls routinely switched their names and identified themselves as mothers of other women’s children. Some didn’t even come forward to claim their own kin.
“Based on both the children’s and women’s repeated deceptions, lies, and misinformation, the trial court had no reliable evidence” on the identities of the children or their parents, the state’s attorneys wrote. The appellate court’s ruling last week centered on a general lack of evidence.
For her, lying was duty
This comes as no surprise to Mary Mackert, a former FLDS member who, as a child in a polygamous family, was taught that her behavior could determine whether her father ended up in jail. She is in Texas because of her interest in the children.
Her mother rehearsed lies with her children: When her father spent the night at his other wives’ houses? “Daddy’s a traveling salesman.” Why didn’t the family attend the mainstream Mormon church? “Daddy’s a Catholic.”
By the time Ms. Mackert, from Utah, was married herself — at 17, to a 50-year-old — lying was second nature. When her husband was in public with her, he would ask their children to “come to Grandpa.” When Ms. Mackert took the rent check to the landlord, she referred to her husband as her father.
“You didn’t think of it as lying. It’s your duty and your responsibility to protect those who are living the principle,” Ms. Mackert said. “They’re going to lie to protect their prophet, and the head of their family. They’ll do anything under the banner of religion.”
That includes draining their resources, said Sam Brower, a Utah-based polygamist investigator and expert on the FLDS sect.
Mr. Brower said that the sect’s legal strategy is simply to outlast opponents — and that it has the money to do it, thanks to various successful businesses the church owns. He said the sect has brought in virtually every high-powered attorney it’s ever used to tackle the West Texas case.
Religious leaders also make investigators’ work harder by shuttling people across state lines, Mr. Brower said. Often, he said, people of interest simply “disappear” — making something as simple as serving a subpoena incredibly costly. When investigators get too close, Mr. Brower said, sect leaders order entire families to turn in their photo albums, birth certificates and other records to be hidden or destroyed.
“It’s like dealing with the mob, only worse,” Mr. Brower said. “Part of their culture is to create confusion.”
The wrong approach?
Mr. Jessop called such statements “outrageous and barbaric.” He said investigators have never cared to hear sect members’ side of the story — relying on rumors and former adherents with agendas to guide them.
“There has been such a blatant disregard for the truth,” he said. “Everything’s about sensation. There have been no boundaries.”
For many sect members, the Yearning For Zion case brings up painful memories of the 1953 raids on Short Creek — a now-renamed town on the Utah-Arizona border where more than 300 FLDS women and children were sent into foster care.
They hope the West Texas case will play out like Short Creek did: After a public backlash that brought down an Arizona governor, families were eventually reunited.
If it does, experts say, Texas officials can learn from Utah and Arizona, where officials have emphasized selective prosecution for child and domestic abuse, not targeting polygamy itself or going after entire communities.
The two states created a safety committee made up of sect members, social workers and law enforcement officials, with monthly meetings that rotate among cities with significant polygamist populations.
Mr. Goddard, the Arizona attorney general, said authorities in both states have worked closely since 2003, creating a hotline for abused youths to call and preventing FLDS leader Warren Jeffs from using the sect’s trust fund and local police and government jobs “to coerce” followers to toe the line.
“In the past, we were afraid to seek help and to go to the police because we were afraid that they would charge us,” said Heidi Foster, a Salt Lake City mother of 12 who has been in a polygamous marriage and now helps run a support group for fundamentalist Mormon women.
Texas’ approach drives sect women “further underground,” she said. “They’re going to be more likely to try and handle it themselves and not seek help.”
Imminent danger cited
Texas officials have portrayed their case as simply too urgent. The sect’s pervasive belief in marrying off underage girls put every child there in imminent danger, they argued. A trial judge agreed, but the appellate court did not.
Mr. Jessop said if sect members are ever allowed to return to the ranch, it would be a long time until they trust the government.
While some kind of “cooperative” community policing model might work, he doesn’t foresee sect members changing their lifestyle.
“The belief of the people is that religion is not the problem, bias against religion is the problem,” Mr. Jessop said. “It’s a little bit like asking a Christian to give up Christianity to get their children back.”