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Texas defends separation of FLDS mothers from children

Texas defends separation of FLDS mothers from children


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John Hollenhorst and Marc Giauque reporting After the sobs and tears of FLDS mothers were broadcast around the world overnight, Texas officials are defending their removal of children from parents. Texas officials aren't backing down a bit in their two-week battle with the religious group led by Warren Jeffs.

Marleigh Meisner, with Texas Child Protective Services, said, "Quite frankly, it's not about us, and it's not about the mommas. It's about these children whose cries have been unheard."

A total of 416 FLDS children are now in state custody, mostly at the Coliseum in San Angelo. Eighty-two mothers of younger children remain in the shelter; 57 mothers of older children were sent away by order of state officials; 51 of those returned to the FLDS compound, and six asked to be taken to safe shelters elsewhere.

A TV station in Texas is reporting that some of the children have been taken a very long way from home. Buses arrived last night at Boys Ranch, just outside of Amarillo. That's in the Texas Panhandle, about 350 miles from the FLDS compound in Eldorado. There was no direct confirmation from state officials, but they did acknowledge that about 20 adolescent boys from the FLDS group have been bused away from San Angelo. There's no explanation yet as to why that group is being handled differently.

Under federal and state laws, the children are entitled to a showdown in court on their status. That will happen Thursday.

Today there were some hints that state officials might allow some of the children to see their parents, at least occasionally, in the future.

An optimistic view is that there might even be a way out of this huge dilemma, if cool, rational minds can get to work and find compromise. But there are tough obstacles. Could Texas officials ease off after their tough crackdown drew worldwide attention? Would FLDS leaders live up to conditions that might imply continued scrutiny inside their compound?

For the FLDS members, it was an unheard of public relations strategy: they opened the gates last night and allowed news crews to talk to moms. Their tears drew national sympathy. One mother said, "Where are my children? I don't know who's taking care of them."

But Texas officials are giving no ground. One Texas legislator, Rep. Drew Darby, said, "In Texas we have a saying, 'Don't mess with Texas.' Well, I'm going to change that up a bit and say, 'Don't mess with the children of Texas.' And that's what this is about, is protecting those children."

If the children are to remain in state custody, the state will have to prove to a judge that they're at risk of abuse at home with their families.

University of Utah law professor Linda Smith says the case has to be strong enough to overcome the parents' constitutional right to raise their own children. "The court should prefer placement with the family if the child can be protected with the family," she said.

But it's quite common in child removal cases to find a middle ground, allowing kids to go home but under court-approved conditions. Such agreements often spell out detailed rules for parents and children. Family life goes on, but state officials typically supervise, monitoring and protecting against abuse.

"It's typical that there's an attempt made to solve the problems that the children faced and an attempt made to return the children to their families," Smith says.

A Texas official suggested they've moved at least a little way toward some sort of compromise. Meisner said, "We will be talking to that judge about possible supervision with family members, and the children understand this. I can tell you that today, the children at the shelters are doing well. They're happy, they're smiling. They're playing."

So, compromise is typical in a typical case, but there's nothing typical about this one. One family law expert who's had a lot of experience with polygamy groups expressed doubts to us about whether FLDS families would ever follow rules set down by a judge.

Meanwhile, one person who's very happy about the crackdown in Texas is former FLDS member Kathleen Mackert. She left the group many years ago and says it left many psychological scars for her and her loved ones. "The fact the children are being violated in mass numbers in America today, it saddens me beyond expression. Their environment is likened unto a pedophile's Disneyland."

Mackert claims her sister was once held captive by what she calls "the cult" and threatened with blood atonement, i.e. death, when she tried to run away.

E-mail: jhollenhorst@ksl.com
E-mail: mgiauque@ksl.com

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