CPS actions in polygamist sect puzzle some child welfare experts

AUSTIN — Some lawyers and child welfare experts say they’re puzzled that the Texas child protection system has taken special steps to protect only one teenage girl from a polygamist sect, when state officials said several are pregnant or already mothers.

“I am surprised there was not more than one child that had special restrictions,” Southern Methodist University child welfare expert Jessica Dixon said Tuesday.

Ms. Dixon, a lawyer who runs the W.W. Caruth Jr. Child Advocacy Clinic at SMU, said Child Protective Services officials were rebuked by two courts and “are probably walking on eggshells at this point as far as imposing more restrictions.”

This month, CPS released all of the 440 sect children in its custody after securing a blanket court order directing the parents to take parenting classes and not leave the state with the children.

The 16-year-old daughter of jailed sect prophet Warren Jeffs, though, was released under a more restrictive order. It bars the girl’s mother from letting her have any contact with Mr. Jeffs and a 38-year-old male in the sect. It also restricts travel by the girl beyond her and her mother’s home in the San Antonio area.

Other teenage girls who until April 3 lived at the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day SaintsYearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado also could be at risk, said Natalie Malonis of Flower Mound, attorney for Mr. Jeffs’ daughter, and Susan Hays of Dallas, also a court-appointed lawyer in the massive child protection case.

“My client is not by any means the only one in that situation,” Ms. Malonis said. “And coming up, I think you will see more restrictions and more action — either by [court-appointed lawyers and special advocates for FLDS children] or CPS.”

Ms. Hays said any court-appointed lawyer “who has reason to believe her client is being sexually abused, which includes underage marriages, should be taking steps to protect her client — investigating it further, discussing it with their clients.”

Sect spokesman Willie Jessop said the demands for more restrictions reflect religious prejudice and are unwarranted.

“Unless the state says the ranch has done something wrong, why should she be restricted,” he said of Mr. Jeffs’ daughter.

Last week, the girl, accompanied by her mother and Ms. Malonis, visited the ranch briefly to collect belongings and see friends. Attorneys in the case agreed to the visit.

Mr. Jessop said Ms. Malonis “clearly has not had the best interests of her client at heart” and “is a biased attorney.” He said there is no evidence the 38-year-old male sect member had abused the girl.

Ms. Malonis, though, called the girl a sexual abuse victim.

“I’m not going to get into specifics, but there is evidence that the order is warranted and necessary,” Ms. Malonis said. “Her mother signed the order. This was not a snap decision. A lot went into it.”

Still, lawyer Andrea Sloan of Austin, who represents several FLDS teen girls, said a May 29 ruling against CPS by the Texas Supreme Court returned to sect parents the right to decide where they and their children will live and with whom they’ll associate.

“It starts getting into a real ethical gray area when you start getting court orders that are against your client when they’re 15, 16, 17 years old,” Ms. Sloan said.

Former Dallas County family court judge Jeff Coen said that state District Court Judge Barbara Walther of San Angelo had little choice but to issue her one-size-fits-all release order on June 2.

Though the Supreme Court demanded the children be released, scores of lawyers for the youngsters couldn’t agree on terms, Mr. Coen recalled.

“From purely a theoretical basis, sure, it would have been nice to have reviewed each one of those cases individually,” he said. “But was that possible under the circumstances? Probably not.”

CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said his agency did what it could to protect teenage girls after the Supreme Court’s decision. He said CPS obtained an assurance in the blanket order that it could continue to check on the children in their homes, and a warning against interference.

“We are proceeding with the investigation as quickly as possible, always with the safety and security of the children as our first priority,” Mr. Crimmins said.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday June 18, 2008.
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