Ruth Edna Fischer was first allowed to see her 2-year-old daughter, from whom she had been separated after the raid on their polygamist ranch in Texas, at the child’s hospital room. The child had been taken there because of severe dehydration and malnutrition, Ms. Fischer said.
Ruth Edna Fischer, visiting two of her four children, Joseph Smith Jeffs and Hyrum Smith Jeffs, twins who are in Texas custody.
“Hannah looked like a little orphan sitting on the couch,” Ms. Fischer said. “Her hair was stringy and she was in a diaper, a pair of dirty socks and a hospital gown.”
The second visit two weeks later at a state office in Angleton, Tex., was worse. The girl would not even meet her mother’s gaze. “It was like she hardly remembered me,” said Ms. Fischer, who has four children in state custody.
As they await a ruling by the highest court in Texas on whether child-welfare authorities had the right to take 468 children from the ranch early last month, the mothers have started speaking out more forcefully about what they think the separation has already done to their children.
The mothers and their lawyers are undoubtedly trying to make their best pitch for public sympathy as the Supreme Court of Texas deliberates on the fate of their children. Last Thursday, an appeals court in Austin found that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services had illegally removed the children without sufficient evidence that they were in immediate danger.
On Friday, state officials asked the higher court for an emergency order that would allow them to keep all but a dozen children in their custody. The dozen children were returned to their parents under the condition that they have continuing supervision. The Supreme Court denied the stay on Friday, but said it would consider the case over the weekend. No decision has been issued yet.
Many child-welfare experts across the nation, who have as a group watched the high-profile Texas case closely, say the raid on the polygamist ranch diverged sharply from the recommended practices both in Texas and elsewhere in the country.
They say a growing body of research supports the contention of the mothers that forceful removal can have both significant short-term and long-lasting harm, particularly for younger children. Some studies have found that the wide-ranging effects include anxiety, extreme distrust of strangers and, in the future, higher rates of teenage pregnancy and juvenile incarceration.
Through their lawyers and in personal interviews, the mothers have been spilling tales of toddlers who have forgotten toilet training and 3-year-olds who cling to them frantically during visits. Ms. Fischer’s child became dehydrated as a result of a fever.
It is because of the growing national consensus about the scarring effect of removal on children, even if only temporarily, that federal law — to which all state law must defer — demands that children be removed only if “reasonable efforts” to keep them at home have been made.
Many states, like Oregon and Tennessee, have gone even further to protect children from the trauma of removal by giving families intensive in-home services first, and then, if the child is taken, having conferences with the parents, kin and friends from the community within 48 hours to help smooth the transition.
Some experts in Texas state law and procedure say the state not only violated minimum national standards, which are written into the Texas Family Code, but they also violated due process considerations. These were essentially the findings of the appeals court.
“They made no effort to keep the children there at the ranch,” said Johana Scot, executive director of the Parent Guidance Center in Austin, which helps advocate for the rights of parents who have had their children taken into foster care.
“And even worse, they did not give the families individual hearings, which they are also required to do by the code,” Ms. Scot said. “They’ve really botched this.”
Marleigh Meisner, a public information officer for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said she could not discuss any particulars of this case. But in the filing to the Texas Supreme Court last Friday, the state held that because the parents had declined to identify which children belonged to whom, they could not at first be treated individually.
Further, the state asserted that all children were at risk because they were being indoctrinated into a pattern of sexual abuse — the young girls as victims, and the boys as predators.
Last Friday, to bolster its case, the state made public a picture of what it said was the now-imprisoned leader of the church, Warren S. Jeffs, kissing a 12-year female child on the lips.
The state’s raid on the Yearning for Zion ranch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or F.L.D.S., came on April 3 after someone called an abuse hot line and said that she was a 16-year-old child bride being abused by her older husband at the ranch in Eldorado, Tex., which is about 45 miles south of San Angelo.
The state raided the ranch and conducted an extensive investigation of the sect’s files and found that numerous girls under the age of 16, some as young as 13, had been impregnated by older men. The caller has not been found.
Lawyers for the families say Texas officials overstepped the law in removing the children from their families; some three-quarters of the children were under age 10 and presumably not at “imminent risk” of abuse, which is the standard, according to federal law. Less draconian options, which the state did not employ, could have included removing all the men from the ranch or only the teenage girls, the lawyers have argued.
Steven D. Cohen, a senior associate at the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national child-advocacy organization, said that while he could not say whether Texas officials acted improperly in taking the children from their mothers, he did think that they had violated numerous standards of best practice widely used elsewhere.
“Breaking all of the ties to several parental figures and siblings, and taking them to a remote and unfamiliar place raises many red flags about trauma and its effect on children,” Mr. Cohen said
Experts say younger children, who often do not have a sense of the passage of time, can be particularly hard hit by such separations. About 100 of the children removed from the sect were 2 years old or younger.
Shelly Greco, a court-appointed lawyer for a 14-month-old girl removed from the ranch, says the child had been up crying uncontrollably many nights because she was so abruptly weaned.
Numerous studies in recent years show that the effects of removal can be long lasting, often not showing up fully for a decade of more. In one study, Joseph J. Doyle, an economist with the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., found that children removed from their parents and taken into foster care, even for a relatively short period, were three times as likely to grow up to be juvenile offenders or have a teenage pregnancy than were children from similarly troubled homes who had been left with their parents.
Professor Doyle said Texas was far from alone in erring on the side of removal. “From the caseworker’s point of view, the incentive is to take the kid,” he said. “That’s the safer choice, because it is unlikely that if something terrible happens in foster care they would be blamed. Whereas if something were to happen at home, the caseworker would be blamed.”
But Lori Jessop, one of a few mothers from the ranch who were reunited with their children in a court-brokered agreement last Friday, said she had already seen the impact of this situation. Ms. Jessop said her three children were suffering from night terrors and a fear of strangers, among other problems. She said that when her 4-year-old daughter recently saw a picture of a bus, like the one used to transport the children when they were in foster care, she started to cry.
“It’s affected her a lot,” Ms. Jessop said. “Everybody that she sees, especially adult men, she calls them policemen.”
Gretel C. Kovach contributed reporting.
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