I had sympathy for the Eldorado polygamists when their claims of religious persecution by the state seemed plausible. But the disturbing allegations of sexual abuse of underage girls changed my mind completely.
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I felt bad, at first, for the polygamists when the gun-toting state troopers and other law enforcement personnel busted into their Yearning for Zion compound, outside Eldorado, in early April. I felt bad when the officers tried using a “jaws of life” tool to wrench open the door of the sacred temple, and I felt especially bad when they carried away the children, some of whom were infants holding bottles. I kept asking myself, “Is any of this legal?” Removing all 463 children because of phone calls from someone claiming to be a pregnant sixteen-year-old named Sarah who was living at the compound and was being beaten and sexually abused by a middle-aged man? Shouldn’t there at least have been a court hearing where lawyers could raise the issue of due process?
For days, I watched television reports showing the Yearning for Zion children gathered in the yard at San Angelo’s Fort Concho National Historic Landmark. None of them looked malnourished or bruised or beaten. I watched some of their parents on television news shows: the men in their blue jeans and button-down shirts, their faces earnest and sunburned, the women looking like extras from Little House on the Prairie in their collared dresses buttoned to the top and their voluminous hair poufed around their faces. In heartbroken voices, they called themselves honorable parents who would never abuse their children. In fact, they said, they had come to this 1,691-acre former hunting preserve in West Texas so that they could create a place to protect them from the ills of modern civilization. They wanted only to be left alone so that they could pray, sing hymns, study Scripture, and come together as a community to worship God in their temple.
It was, I must say, an impressive performance. Obviously there was some sort of plural marriage being practiced at the compound by many of the men—they shared their homes with “spiritual” wives—but I was having trouble convincing myself that what they were doing was a crime. If a small number of fully informed adults were consenting to a certain family arrangement in sparsely populated Schleicher County, so what?
Besides, they almost never left the compound. One day they showed reporters how they grew their own crops, made their own cheese and bread, and built their own temple with limestone they found on their land. The women gave tours of the school and of their immaculate, green-roofed homes scattered throughout the compound, each of them filled with bunk beds for their children. They all seemed straight as an arrow. Accordingly, when the news broke that investigators now suspect the phone call from “Sarah” came from a 33-year-old woman in Colorado who Texas Rangers say may be connected to calls reporting abuse at Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints compounds in Colorado, Arizona, and Texas, I thought, “Great, another law enforcement fiasco.”
But that was before Child Protective Services hit us with the bombshell: Of the 53 girls ages fourteen to seventeen who had been taken out of the compound, more than 30 had given birth to a child, were pregnant, or both. Many of the girls who had given birth were suspected to be fifteen or sixteen, which means they were as young as fourteen when they got pregnant. The conclusion was inescapable: Underage girls were very likely having sex with grown men at the compound. Under Texas law, that’s statutory rape. According to one CPS affidavit, the leaders of the compound were “indoctrinating and grooming minor female children to accept spiritual marriages to adult male members of the YFZ Ranch resulting in them being sexually abused.” What’s more, adolescent males at the compound were being taught by the group’s leaders that as soon as they became adults, they too should engage in sexual relationships with minor female children, “resulting in them becoming sexual perpetrators.” According to the affidavit, “This pattern and practice places all of the children located at the YFZ Ranch, both male and female, to risks [sic] of emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse”—which is why CPS decided to remove all the kids, even the infants, and send them off to shelters and foster homes throughout Texas.
And just like that, one of the biggest child-custody cases in the history of the United States was up and running—and it’s a heck of a mess. Attorneys and advocates for the YFZ group heatedly claim that CPS had no legal basis for entering the compound in the first place and that the agency certainly had no right to take away all the kids based upon a vague, unsubstantiated charge about the compound’s sexual culture. The CPS investigation, they argue, is driven by suspicion, innuendo, religious bigotry, and hyperbole: They claim CPS has wildly exaggerated the number of teenage girls who are pregnant or who have children. Why, for instance, would CPS, an agency already under fire for being grossly understaffed and overworked, go after the compound with such a vengeance—even calling in 35 of its already beleaguered Dallas/Fort Worth caseworkers to assist with the Eldorado investigation? If their concern is teenage girls having sex, why don’t they visit an urban high school and investigate what happened to all the girls who have given birth or are pregnant?
The answer is CPS can act only when it receives a complaint. When a call, anonymous or otherwise, comes into its hotline alleging child abuse, it is required to investigate. Even if the details in an anonymous phone call turn out to be exaggerated, CPS caseworkers must continue with the investigation if they unearth any evidence that indicates some sort of abuse is taking place. The pregnant teenagers at the YFZ compound were that evidence. In such a case, CPS has the right to remove all the children immediately and get them to what they believe is a safer place until all the facts are sorted out.
I’ve listened to plenty of people question CPS’s premise that the YFZ girls were victims of sexual abuse. The girls, after all, were raised with the belief that entering into a covenant of marriage and having children was their greatest way to honor God, just as it was for their mothers and their grandmothers. Isn’t it significant, someone asked me, that since the polygamists’ arrival in West Texas in 2004, CPS has never received a single complaint from one of the YFZ girls themselves? And why did almost all the girls, when questioned by CPS caseworkers, do everything they could to throw the caseworkers offtrack, giving them false names and lying about their ages and refusing to divulge who the fathers of their babies were? If they were living horrific lives as sexual slaves, why didn’t they seem relieved when CPS caseworkers got them out of the compound?
What people seem to have forgotten is that girls at fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen are still children who are not yet capable of making mature sexual decisions, especially when they are brought up in a culture that links sex and childbearing with religion. In many cases, their parents made such decisions for them, encouraging them to enter into sexual relationships with older men whom, in any other circumstance, the girls would never have chosen. This is fundamentally wrong. It is abuse. “Whenever children are victimized by their caregiver, be it a parent or other adult, CPS has to step in,” agency spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner told me. “The intent of the parent or caregiver, religious or otherwise, is not relevant to what we have to do, which is to protect children.”
Compared with the neglected, underprivileged kids involved in most CPS investigations, the YFZ girls came from close-knit families. But that does not justify what went on at the compound. In a court hearing, a child psychiatrist testified for the state that one fourteen-year-old YFZ girl told him that she didn’t have to get married at an early age. But she decided to go through with a “spiritual marriage” after her father asked her, “Do you want to go to Zion?” In her isolated world, the theological consequences of not getting married, combined with the personal consequences of disappointing her parents, were simply too dire to ignore.
No one has any idea how the current situation will be resolved. Mothers have been separated from their children, including teenage mothers with babies over twelve months old. CPS, which could end up spending as much as $5 million, may find itself with little to show for its efforts when this is all over. It remains to be seen whether the agency will be able to keep the prepubescent kids from returning to the compound; there is no evidence that they have been abused, although CPS argues that the culture of the compound constitutes abuse. The district attorney’s office in San Angelo has joined forces with the state attorney general’s office for future prosecutions of statutory rape, but a lot of people believe the cases will never come to trial because the prosecutors won’t be able to get the girls to testify against the YFZ men. There are also questions about whether the warrant will hold up in court because it was based on a seemingly fraudulent phone call. The result may well be that the girls CPS was trying to protect, who are pregnant or have given birth, will end up back at the compound.
Nevertheless, the agency did the right thing. Just imagine how furious we’d have been if we’d learned that officials charged with protecting children, after receiving an anonymous tip about abuse involving a teenager in a polygamist compound, had decided not to respond because they knew how difficult the entire exercise would be. I, for one, am glad CPS went in there, and I hope they go back again. In our society, we do not allow women to be forced to have sex with men not of their choosing and bear their children—and we certainly don’t permit adult men to have sex with underage girls. And there should be no exceptions.