21 Oct 2010

Texas vs. FLDS: 1 year after the raid

The Salt Lake Tribune - March 25, 2009

by Brooke Adams | Salt Lake Tribune

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.

Within days, 439 children had been taken from their parents; a diaspora of FLDS families was under way. Some of them have yet to recover.

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.

Never forgotten

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.

That secrecy was breached on April 3, when about 100 law officers and caseworkers descended on the ranch and sealed it to search for a teenage girl who, in fact, did not exist. Once there, however, they found other young girls who had been "spiritually united" with adult men and encountered what they deemed a "pattern of deception" that validated the state's concern.

Texas state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, sponsor of a 2005 bill that raised the age of legal marriage from 14 to 16, said at the time that religions practicing plural marriage are not "part of Texas values."

Just last week, the Kerrville Republican introduced a new bill that will, among other things, allow authorities to consider the actions of all adults in a household before deciding whether a child or the child's suspected abuser should be removed.

"For many families in the Eldorado case, evidence showed that both parents were aware of [sexual] abuse and took no reasonable steps to prevent it," Hilderbran said in a news release.

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.

Going public

If the FLDS reaction in 1953 was to dig in, Parker sees a different tack this time.

"If you look at where we were with that community a year ago and where we are today, it's an amazing transformation in terms of their willingness to communicate," he said.

In recent weeks, the sect has again allowed media access to the ranch, where a handful of families have given interviews.

Many men are working jobs elsewhere during the week to help pay the steep legal bills and expenses the sect has racked up over the past year, Jessop said.

But not all mothers and children have returned to the ranch.

The reasons vary. Some entered year-long rental contracts on apartments they moved into so they would be close to the shelters housing their children. For others, the ranch and the traumatic events there can never be untwined.

"That is the scene of a lot of emotional difficulties for them, and they are trying to pick up the pieces and go on," said Rene Haas, a Corpus Christi attorney who represents Joseph and Lori Jessop.

The monogamous couple, parents to three young children, have emotional and physical problems that Haas said resulted from the raid. Joseph, a framer, "works when work is available and when he is physically able," Haas said.

The children "all still have problems of worrying about strange men coming around -- are the police coming? -- that sort of thing," she added.

"What happened to these families, and specifically the children, because the state of Texas did not follow their own laws, our own laws, was devastating -- to not only the families, but I believe to our system of family protection," Haas said.

But Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said given the same circumstances today, his department would respond exactly the same way.

"We were required by Texas law to investigate the report," he said."Once the investigators got to the ranch, the investigation proceeded, not because of the initial report, but because of what they found: an obvious pattern of underage marriages and births, deception and misinformation [and] girls who told our workers that no age was too young to marry."

Like ranch residents, some caseworkers were overwhelmed by the experience and later sought counseling, he said.

"Despite feeling pride in their efforts on what everyone knew was a historic case, many employees found the experience exhausting and emotional and experienced significant stress," Crimmins said.

The stress was felt, too, by members of Utah fundamentalist Mormon community, many of whom have family histories that echo those of the FLDS. Today many are galvanized by what happened in Texas.

"Some people felt like it was even more important than ever for them to not be afraid and to move forward and to act in their own defense," said Mary Batchelor, a co-founder of the Salt Lake-based advocacy group Principle Voices. She points to the 130-plus turnout for a legislative awareness day as an example of that new attitude.

With all but one child back home, the FLDS are refocusing their attention, too.

"There needs to be, at some point, some sort of recognition of the damage that was done here and some compensation for it," Parker said.

"You've got another generation of children that are going to carry those same scars," he said. "It introduces a level of fear that you just can't make go away."

These are the current estimate of costs related to the investigation at the Yearning For Zion Ranch:

Attorney General's Office:

»$58,420 (DNA testing)

»$164,895.80 (investigation/prosecution as of January 2009)

Department of Family and Protective Services:

» $12.4 million (as of June 4, 2008)

Department of Public Safety:

» $1,390,262.39

Schleicher County*:

»$249,430.26 (2008: salary, travel, overtime, meals)

»$6,900 (2009: salary, mileage)

»$756,041.53 (fees billed by court-appointed attorneys)

*Reimbursed by the state

Reported by Brooke Adams

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