Historic Removal: FLDS women and children board a school bus to go from the YFZ Ranch to a child protective services processing site in San Angelo, Texas.
Photo: Associated Press
[Note: Youth Today will update this story as developments continue. To read updates, scroll to the bottom of the page.]
Last year, child welfare workers in sparsely populated Schleicher County, Texas, removed one child from a home because of alleged abuse.
Then one day last month, they removed more than 430.
That’s not what child protection workers expected when they showed up at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado. “We had no idea there were this many children in the compound,” said Darrell Azar, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety and Child Protective Services (CPS). “Local law enforcement estimated a few hundred people, total.”
In a matter of hours, a county where the state CPS had recruited no foster homes became the venue for the largest child protection case in U.S. history.
|Links to supporting documents
Affidavit for search (From the 51st Judicial District Court of Texas)
Affidavit for Emergency Conservatorship (From GoSanAngelo.com)
Petition for Conservatorship (From GoSanAngelo.com)
Blog of court proceedings at 14-day hearing (From GoSanAngelo.com) Note: Official transcript available through courts for a considerable amount of money.
Order for Placement (From GoSanAngelo.com)
Appeal filed by FLDS mothers (From Keyetv.com)
The public and media have focused on the big picture issues raised by the case of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), namely: should the children have been removed from their homes in the first place?
For the youth work field, the questions involve what steps by child welfare officials and their partners have worked well, and what haven’t.
After the children were removed from the ranch, was it OK to ship some of them 400 miles away? Was the court wise to appoint a different attorney for each child? Should front-line staff have gotten more training about the FLDS culture?
Following is a look at those and other on-the-ground issues.
• CPS went through the state Department of Health’s Emergency Management System to quickly place the youths in nearby shelters: first at Fort Concho, then at San Angelo’s Wells Fargo Pavilion, a music venue, and San Angelo Coliseum, a sports arena. Emergency management systems are set up to make things happen quickly and ask about the cost later.
• The state initially let mothers stay at the shelters with the children, recognizing that this was not a typical case. The women, from what is known, were not suspected of abuse. Later, saying that it feared the mothers were influencing what children told caseworkers, CPS moved about 100 youths between ages 5 and 18 to the coliseum, next to the pavilion, without their mothers.
• The process in the shelters was orderly. Few people were allowed into the shelters, other than state workers and the licensed childcare providers brought in to assist them. The youth to staff ratio was 3:1.
The Children’s Advocacy Center of Tom Green County (CAC), the San Angelo-based nonprofit hired by the state to provide a guardian ad litem to each of the youths, found the accommodations tight, but functional. “They were packed in there,” said CAC Executive Director Debra Brown. “It was loud and crowded, but everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing.” Considering the size of the operation, “I was real impressed with that.”
• When it came time to separate them from their mothers, it appears that CPS fooled many of the mothers into thinking they were headed from Fort Concho to the sports coliseum. Instead, those mothers were returned to the ranch.
• Extra caseworkers and other staffers were recruited quickly from CPS offices around the state. They helped with such tasks as interviewing children, shelter supervision and correspondence with the news media.
The state spread out the burden. Urban regions were asked to contribute 50 staffers each to the operation, while rural regions were asked for 30 each, CPS spokesman Azar said. “We’ve rotated [those staff] in and out,” and left it up to regional managers which caseworkers they would send. “Nobody complained.”
Altogether, at least 400 CPS staffers were involved. That’s nearly one for every youth: The number of FLDS members taken off the ranch and classified as youth gradually grew from 416, to 437, to more than 460.
Nevertheless, staffing was going to tax the staff, no matter what CPS did. “It’s going to be a real challenge for them,” said Susan Hopkins Craven, president of Texans Care for Children, an advocacy group. “They are already understaffed, with a 41-to-1 ratio of [children to] caseworkers statewide.”
The beginning: Children are removed from the ranch.
• The caseworkers got haphazard training about how to handle the FLDS population. CPS leaders spoke with some experts, including Dr. Bruce Perry, a Texas-based child psychiatrist who was present throughout the days leading to the first major hearing, at which he was a key witness for CPS. Perry has been brought in to consult on several tragedies involving large numbers of youth, including the Branch Davidian debacle in Waco, Texas, the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo., and the 9/11 attacks.
But the frontline staff did not get direct training with consistent guidelines from CPS. “We would disseminate” information about the FLDS cultural practices, Azar said. “As we learned more, we would get it out. But [caseworkers] were actively engaged in child protection services. There wasn’t time to send them back to school.”
That might not have been a bad idea. The agency disseminated a tip sheet that was less helpful than a Q-and-A session might have been. The sheet warned workers that FLDS members are fearful, self-destructive and distrustful of government, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, and that FLDS women travel with two spies. The FLDS lawyers skewered the tip sheet in the media.
• CPS called its regular service providers early in the case, realizing some would have to take in FLDS children. Several agencies said CPS asked how many children they could take.
“They called and put us on alert,” said Katherine Kerr, spokeswoman for Lutheran Social Services of the South (LSSS), the largest contractor in the CPS network. LSSS has 1,300 youths in its 650 foster homes.
• Some contractors believed the needs of the children would be different enough that special preparation would be necessary. In San Angelo, the town where the initial hearing was held in the 51st Judicial District Court, staffers at the Concho Valley Home for Girls were “educating ourselves as best as possible” about the FLDS, said Director Sammye Ruppeck.
But the state did not provide any guidance. “I’m spending a lot of time on Google,” she said.
Ruppeck noted that the hairstyles of the FLDS women and girls meant that “we’ll need a whole lot of hair spray and scrunchies.” She also read that the children wouldn’t eat processed foods and would eat plenty of chicken and fish. “And of course, no TV.”
Concho Valley’s eight-bed emergency shelter served as one of the places to which younger children in need of medical attention were sent. Ruppeck said some of the babies have suffered from loss of appetite and sleeplessness.
• CPS was unsure whether it would need new foster families, but it set up an e-mail address (communityengagement @dfps.state.tx.us) for people to announce their interest.
• Communication with the private community partners was sometimes erratic. Early contact with CPS left Ruppeck concerned that the agency was in over its head. “Talk about the right hand not knowing what the left is doing,” she said. “They called to see if we’re ready to take girls, and how many.” She got that same call three more times, from different workers who didn’t seem to know that the others had called.
• The State Bar of Texas recruited enough lawyers to represent each youth individually. Two of the state bar’s board members took the lead in organizing recruitment and training: Tom Vick, the bar’s former family law chairman, and San Angelo attorney Guy Choate.
The bar held a training session in San Angelo the week before the hearing began and online training for attorneys who could not get to San Angelo fast enough.
A “large percentage” of the volunteers have family law backgrounds, said Kim Davey, spokeswoman for the state bar of Texas.
• The court held one hearing at the start of the case to decide whether CPS could retain custody of the more than 400 children. That wasn’t ideal, but if state District Judge, Barbara Walther, considered each family individually, it would have meant at least 100 cases. Factor in the difficulty of establishing who was actually in any one family, and just setting up the hearings could have taken weeks.
• The value of holding a massive hearing is rendered moot if a court decides Judge Walther acted inappropriately. The 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin planned to hear from attorneys representing FLDS mothers who believe that sending the children to foster care without individual custody hearings violated the rights of the parents.
• While the help of the state bar was instrumental in moving the case forward, the crucial 14-day court hearing was bogged down by endless lines of attorneys waiting to speak on behalf of the children to whom they were assigned. Because many attorneys didn’t meet their clients until after the hearing, and the hearing was already going to address blanket issues affecting all the children, it might have been better to create a smaller team of lawyers to more effectively work with them.
• Putting the youths in group care remains a controversial move.
Expert testimony at the hearing suggested “it would be disruptive to drop the youths into traditional schools and foster homes,” said CPS spokesman Azar. “We want to keep them in groups and, wherever we can, keep siblings together. All teens with kids will stay with their babies.”
Yes, residential centers are overused in child welfare. “Institutionalization is, by far, the worst form of care for children,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, who has blogged steadily about the case on the organization’s website.
But the circumstances here are very different from the usual case. The priority has been that the children not be completely disoriented by having them stay in foster care. In group settings at such places as Austin Children’s Shelter and Hendrick Home for Children in Abilene, the state has the best chance to recreate what it can of the children’s routines at the ranch.
Most foster families aren’t going to put the television in the attic for months, and many would struggle to shop for all that the youths’ needs without individual training and extra funds from CPS.
With DNA tests revealing large groups of siblings, finding homes to accommodate them would be tricky. For example: LSSS had about 170 beds available among its foster homes, Kerr, the spokeswoman, said, but “the reality is we can’t take that. And if they want to place sibling groups together … few of the homes would be able to accept a group of youth.”
Cal Farley was the first private agency to confront that challenge. The routine has been “real basic,” said ranch Director Don Adams, the director. “We get them up to eat breakfast, and try to keep them occupied.”
FLDS children are forbidden by their elders to compete in activities where the goal is to win, which limits the games they can play. Staffers were learning as they go about what daily regimen the teenagers are accustomed to.
• CPS was very cloak-and-dagger about its movements of the children throughout the case. It started with the movement of 27 teens at night to temporary foster care at Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch in Amarillo, 400 miles away.
Why? “We have the capacity, and we have resources to do it at a moment’s notice,” said Adams, whose facility can handle that many youth and routinely accepts kids from around the country.
Also, when 110 children (most of the over-5 population) were taken from the coliseum to new group care placements, buses rolled in and out with no information from CPS. The reason, ostensibly, was to maintain the privacy of the children.
If so, they were trying to do the impossible. The town of San Angelo was teeming with journalists and film crews. The names of the towns and cities where the children were headed were available in a matter of minutes. The names of the sites taking the children were on a news site, http://www.gosanangelo.com, the next day.
• The worry about mothers influencing what their children told CPS clearly did not apply to those with babies less than a year old. When Judge Walther signed off on separating children who were still breastfeeding, it caused a public uproar. The judge ultimately conceded her mistake, and ordered that the mothers be allowed to stay with the infants.