Winning public opinion: Letting news media in gave polygamous community a human face.
At the Yearning For Zion Ranch, life has regained a familiar rhythm.
Families awake at 5 a.m., gather for prayers, breakfast and chores before the children head to the sect’s private school. Days end much the same way: chores, a meal, prayer.
There is just one sign of the disruption that unfolded here last April: The gleaming limestone temple, once illuminated and visible for miles against the night sky, is shuttered and dark.
A year ago today, a local women’s shelter received calls for help — – now believed a hoax — that drew law enforcement to the polygamous sect’s ranch in the remote Texas town of Eldorado and triggered the largest abuse investigation in U.S. history.
The fallout is still being calculated financially, legally and psychologically, but the results are these:
Just one child remains in state custody. Twelve men face criminal charges related to underage marriages; the first trial is set for October. A new legislative committee is set to explore “lessons learned” from the raid, which has cost upward of $15 million.
Texas authorities resolutely defend their actions as necessary for the children’s safety. And members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints remain as firmly committed to their faith as ever.
In sermons and school lessons, the FLDS have kept alive eight decades of efforts to wipe out their polygamous lifestyle — most notably, the 1953 raid on Short Creek, their traditional home base at the Utah-Arizona border. Authorities kept 263 women and children in state custody for two years. The raid led the sect to close ranks — a decision that contributed to what happened in Texas 55 years later, said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
“One good thing is it sent a message to [sect leader] Warren Jeffs, or anyone of his ilk, that they can’t go somewhere else to perform underage marriages, even though they went to extraordinary lengths to have it be private on the ranch,” he said.
As last year’s investigation unfolded, the FLDS looked to their history as their lives were opened to public scrutiny and authorities removed their children.
“That example of maintaining their cool and keeping faith in Heavenly Father is what literally saved the people,” said Willie Jessop, an FLDS member who emerged as a spokesman last spring. “There was a deliverance by a power greater than what we could have done, and we certainly acknowledge that.”
There was another past lesson the FLDS, who had long maintained a stoic silence in the face of criticism and government pressure, drew on: the value of public appeals.
“When the decision was made to let the news media come out on the ranch and start interacting with people, all of a sudden there was a voice on the other side; there were human faces, and it was not just about what the state was doing,” said Salt Lake City attorney Rod Parker, who helped the sect deal with media in Texas.
“It changed the face of it and, ultimately, that made it politically easier for the result that occurred in court,” Parker said, referring to the Texas Supreme Court ruling last May that returned the children to their families.
Public opinion was critical of the state’s action, but it was not an endorsement of the religion, he acknowledged.
“The public felt that what the state had done was wrong. And it became a question of individual rights and family rights and religious freedom — the sort of things that America stands for,” Parker said.
FLDS are still feeling effects one year later
A year later, residents of the YFZ Ranch estimate more than half of the families who scattered themselves across the state to be closer to their children and stay in CPS’ good graces have now moved back.
“Some still have rental contracts. Others have chosen not to come back because of the trauma they experienced here,” Keate said. “The children, when they come here, are not able to cope with it.”
Around the YFZ Ranch, there are signs that things are returning to some semblance of normalcy. Women are seen working in greenhouses, young men are working in fields. Children are playing outside.
“We’re not quite there, but it feels real good,” Frederick Merril Jessop, the leader of the YFZ Ranch, told the Deseret News. “We’re grateful.”
Jessop’s own 14-year-old daughter is the only child remaining in state custody. Child welfare authorities allege she was married at age 12 to FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.
Jessop, 72, is facing criminal charges accusing him of performing an illegal marriage ceremony.
A dozen men, including Jeffs, were indicted by a grand jury here on charges ranging from sexual assault and bigamy to failure to report child abuse. The criminal charges almost mirror a CPS investigative report that found 12 victims of sex abuse, and 52 child victims of neglect because they were exposed to a home where the alleged abuse had taken place.
“The case was never about the religious practices of the FLDS,” CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said. “The Eldorado case was about sexual abuse and it was about the abuse of children who were taught that underage marriages were a way of life and parents who condoned illegal underage marriages and failed to prevent the abuse of young girls.”
FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop called the charges another form of persecution.
Jessop did not rule out the possibility of a lawsuit against Texas officials over the raid.
Asked if the temple will ever be used again, Edson Jessop admits he doesn’t know.
“I’m not in a position to be able to say,” he said. “I would hope so, but I just don’t know. The abuse is so terrible.”
He notes that law enforcement breached the temple on April 6 — the same day that Joseph Smith founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The FLDS Church is a breakaway sect from the mainstream LDS Church.
Many here look back on the raid as a test of their faith.
“Like the deliverance of Moses to the Red Sea, to us it was that miraculous,” Zavenda Jessop said. “Because CPS, they told us as much as ‘You will never see your children again. If you go back to the ranch, you will never see your children again.’ They would tell the children: ‘You’re never going home. You’re never going to be with your mother.’ We were living with this pressure and stress. For the Lord to deliver us is miraculous.”
Raid’s cost: $12.8M & counting
WASHINGTON – A very modern test awaited the women and girls in old-fashioned prairie dresses and the men and boys in long-sleeved shirts and pants after the April raid on their home in Schleicher County.
The state’s tab for DNA testing to determine family relationships is close to $60,000 or about $97 each on average for 599 samples.
The tests ordered by 51st District Judge Barbara Walther are among more than $12 million – and mounting – of documented expenses for the state’s legal battles with the polygamous sect that has a stronghold at the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado.
Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said the agency hasn’t released figures yet on expenses for its investigation and legal work after the children returned to their parents in June.
The state’s price tag for last year’s April raid on the YFZ Ranch, the compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is more than $12.8 million and still counting for expenses ranging from DNA testing to placing children from the polygamous sect in foster care:
$223,420 – Texas Attorney General’s Office total, made up of $165,000 in travel and other direct expenses for the ongoing criminal investigation, and $58,420 for DNA testing.
Other elements in the cost:
Overtime: $3.2 million
$70,483 – Health and Human Services Commission
$2.46 million – Department of Family and Protective Services
$160,505 – Department of State Health Services
$13,441 – Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services
$13,680 – Department of Aging and Disability Services
$430,207 – Texas Department of Public Safety/Governor’s Division of Emergency Management
$1,485 – Texas Department of Criminal Justice
$37,648 – Texas Forest Service
Travel: $1.73 million
$50,229 – Health and Human Services Commission
$1.5 million – Department of Family and Protective Services
$80,457 – Department of State Health Services
$9,906 – Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services
$81,873 – Texas Department of Public Safety/Governor’s Division of Emergency Management
$37,648 – Texas Forest Service
Goods and Services: $4.38 million:
$1.06 million – buses
$1 million – Unified Command Center, mostly providing shelter and food
$881,577 – local government costs
$339,103 – professional services
$244,043 – ambulances
$132,430 – janitorial
$98,398 – building and equipment rental
$93,677 – other
$69,548 – supplies
$9,992 – fuel
$6,516 – temporary staff
$3,903 – other transportation
$181,003 – Department of Public Safety operating costs
$3,918 – Texas Department of Criminal Justice equipment costs
$14,631 – Department of State Health Services medical costs
$114,517 – Health and Human Services Commission equipment and supplies
$165,355 – additional expenses for goods and services released by the DFPS in March
Foster care and other placement: $3.34 million
$1.26 million – foster care placement
$1.076 million – security and other placement costs
$1 million – Medicaid costs
Source: Attorney General’s Office and “Eldorado Investigation, a Report from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services” released Dec. 2008
Note: Numbers are rounded.
Raid again? Texas CPS defends ’08 actions
SAN ANGELO, Texas — If another call came in summoning Child Protective Services to the gates of the YFZ Ranch, the agency wouldn’t hesitate to respond.
“We certainly would take advantage of our vast experience in this particular case if we were to get another report,” said CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins. “There’s no way to predict how exactly we would react.”
In the face of criticism, the agency is defending how it handled the investigation into allegations of abuse on the Fundamentalist LDS Church’s sprawling Texas ranch.
“We wanted to find out if those children had been abused and neglected and do whatever we needed to do to protect them from being harmed in the future,” Crimmins said. “We believe we’ve done that.”
At the Texas State Legislature, the raid will come under some scrutiny when a legislative committee holds a hearing on “lessons learned.”
“We will be there,” said FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop.
Several pieces of legislation have been proposed related to the raid.
“We learned we weren’t equipped for the situation. Our agency had limited policy and laws that didn’t envision this happening. There were mistakes made and many made because the agency didn’t have the authority or options to manage it more effectively,” said Rep. Harvey Hildebran, R-Kerrville, whose district oversees Schleicher County and the YFZ Ranch.
Hildebran’s bill calls for the removal of suspected perpetrators of abuse instead of the children, something he envisions having wider applications beyond the YFZ Ranch. He also plans to revise the bill to give CPS “additional options and be really clear on what they’re supposed to do in certain circumstances.”
Hildebran drafted legislation in 2005 raising the marriage age in Texas in response to the FLDS moving in from Utah and Arizona. He told the Deseret News he is considering revisiting that legislation to raise the marriage age again — to 17.
The FLDS Church pledged in June to no longer perform any underage marriages.
Lessons learned in raid on YFZ Ranch
>As we near the one-year anniversary of the raid on the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado, it is appropriate to look back at lessons learned in this historic case.
Although the call turned out to be a fake, the evidence uncovered there was not – and the state did the right thing by taking action.
Even so, the ultimate goal of any CPS case is to keep families together if possible, and the FLDS parents were correct in their relentless pursuit of getting their children back. In doing so, they highlighted another important point in this and any other CPS-related case: The state must prove that it has evidence to keep children separated from their families.
CPS says it found hundreds of cases of abuse and neglect at the ranch, including 12 girls married at age 15 or younger to adult men. In all, 12 FLDS members have been indicted by a Schleicher County grand jury on charges stemming from alleged sexual abuse of children. Only one child remains in state custody and all others have been dropped from the case at the state’s request.
The raid put the public spotlight on the super-secretive FLDS, whose previously secluded lifestyle and practices have now spurred debate throughout the nation.
We support the creation of a select legislative subcommittee, which is reviewing the raid to determine whether state laws regarding child removal should be changed.
One solution could be to allow CPS or other authorities to remove adults from an alleged abuse situation. In the FLDS case, such authority could have kept the children in their familiar surroundings instead of sending them to foster homes scattered throughout the state.
One year later, we continue to believe that authorities acted appropriately by going to the ranch with the intent of investigating and preventing abuses to children. Not acting on the phone call could have meant the abuse would continue.
Certainly, FLDS members are free to worship as they please, but no one can use religion as an excuse to violate state law and public decency.
If the FLDS raid, subsequent investigation and court action mean young girls will not be sexually abused in the future, it was well worth the time, effort and money.
Oprah to air show on YFZ Ranch
Returning to do a show in Texas for the first time since her 1998 “veggie libel” trial in Amarillo, Oprah Winfrey has gone inside the gates of the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado, where she taped an hourlong show with members of the secretive polygamists who live there. The show is scheduled to air at 4 p.m. Monday on WFAA/Channel 8.
According to a news release, “viewers will get an unprecedented look at what life is like behind the gates of the Yearning For Zion Ranch, including extraordinary access to the inner workings of the ranch, which until now, has been completely off-limits to outsiders.”
We appreciate your support
One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at Amazon.com.
Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this service free of charge.