Child Welfare Issues at Polygamy Compound

By now you've heard about the Yearning for Zion Ranch in West Texas, the compound where girls as young as sixteen are forced to become "sister-wives" in polygamous marriages with much older men.

Alerted by an anonymous call from someone who claimed to be a 16-year old runaway from the sect (an off-shoot of the mainstream Mormon church known as the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints), child welfare and law enforcement officials raided the ranch and took a reported 437 children into custody. As it turns out, the caller was a fraud but her claims appeared to be true; young women were being married off according to the group's beliefs. It's clear that church members were breaking the law and had the state not intervened, more girls would have been sexually abused under the guise of religious doctrine.

Details are sketchy. The families are so complicated that it's difficult to know who belongs to whom and how old were the young women who were married. The results of DNA testing -- just completed -- will help sort this out. But it's hard to know how many young women are victims and how many are (according to the state of Texas) legally free and clear to marry given that the age of consent in Texas is 16 (with parental approval and assuming that the young woman in question will be the only wife).

Another issue in doubt is whether or not the youngest children -- those too young to be deemed of "marriageable age" as defined by the church -- were in any immediate danger when Judge Barbara Walther originally ruled that they be removed from the care of their mothers. This included 77 toddlers and still-nursing infants under two years old.

Families won't be allowed to contest the ruling. Instead of being judged on an individual basis -- each parent considered separately from the rest of his or her community -- the state is treating the sect as a whole. Kids are being removed on the basis of their cultural background, not because they are in immediate danger. (If you want to see the FLDS point of view on this, you can check out the web site they've set up.)

It's unclear whether or not infants under 12 months have been separated from their mothers. I have read reports that adult women with children under a year will be allowed to stay with their children. Another report said that mothers under 18 would be placed in foster care with their kids. It's anybody's guess what will happen to older infants (greater than a year) who are still nursing.

These are children who have rarely (if ever) left the rarefied air of the compound without a parent. They have already been raised to be leery of the outside world. Raiding their homes to break up their families has probably not done anything to make them feel better about society outside the walls of the ranch. CPS will be alerting the foster homes about the kids' special needs, asking caregivers to stock up on fruits and vegetables and cut back on the television. Given the state of foster care, one has to wonder if that will really do all that much to combat the culture shock.

What about the men? Should they be kept out of the picture? I totally agree with that idea. Until the state figures out which men were breaking the law and were abusing the girls it makes sense to not allow the them unsupervised visits with the kids. But I can't see where the children need immediate protection from their mothers and siblings. Wouldn't it be easier to kick the men off the compound and maintain caseworkers on-site to keep an eye on things? Wouldn't it make more sense to care for the children in their own environment but with some measure of supervision?

I'm sympathetic to what a sudden influx of more than 400 kids must do to an overburdened system but I'm more sympathetic to the children especially given that the kids shouldn't have been removed in the first place, not without proof of immediate harm.

Dawn Friedman is a free-lance writer and blogger living in Columbus, Ohio.