In two days, a San Angelo judge will decide the fate of 416 children who have been removed from a remote polygamist compound in West Texas and separated from their parents. It is the largest child custody case the state of Texas has ever handled. Last night, for the first time, reporters were allowed inside the compound, called Yearning For Zion Ranch.
Here’s a mother talking about how CPS officials separated her from her children, as well as a piece about the compound and the polygamist sect that built it. Our sister paper in Phoenix, Phoenix New Times, has been in front on this story from the beginning, forcing Arizona officials to deal with abuse allegations among members of the nation’s largest polygamist community, which straddles the border of Utah and Arizona.
But as The New York Times noted this weekend, the raid on the YFZ ranch may erode trust that government officials in Arizona and Utah have built over the years with polygamist communities in those states, a trust that is necessary to ferret out claims of sexual and physical abuse.
It will be interesting to see how things play out here in Texas. Yesterday, I called a Salt Lake City-based private investigator who has worked with a woman who runs a sort of underground railroad for girls and mothers who want out of the polygamist community on the Utah-Arizona border. He says the Eldorado case is full of problems.
“You have a raid where 416 children are taken away from their families based on one phone call,” he told me. “So far they haven’t been able to locate the girl who made the phone call, they have no recording of the call, they don’t have a name, they have nothing. I don’t know how you get a search warrant based on that kind of evidence.”
Yet it is that evidence, and solely that evidence, that is the basis for removing 416 children from the custody of their parents. Yesterday, of the 139 women who voluntarily left the compound, only those with children 4 or younger were allowed to stay with them.
“It is not the normal practice to allow parents to accompany the child when an abuse allegation is made,” CPS spokeswoman Marissa Gonzalez told the Associated Press yesterday.
Which is all fine and good if an abuse allegation had been made against any of the women who were forced to abandon their children yesterday. But to date, only one abuse allegation has been made, which was recanted during the same phone call, by a girl that authorities have yet to locate.
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“How hard can it be to find a 16-year-old girl in that community that’s supposedly several months pregnant?” the Salt Lake investigator I talked to yesterday said. “I don’t think the girl exists.”
Women who talked to the press from within the ranch last night said the same thing: that the call probably came from a “bitter person outside the community.”
Either way, it seems law enforcement officials in San Angelo severely overreacted, and now the state has a mess on its hands. Texas bar officials told the Associated Press that more than 350 lawyers have volunteered to represent the children free of charge.
"We are American citizens,” one of the polygamist mothers told reporters yesterday. “We are legal, law-abiding and a peaceful people. We have tried to cooperate the best we could, and we were promised we would get our children back. We have literally been terrorized." --Jesse Hyde