Even Polygamists Are Innocent Until Proven Guilty
More than six weeks ago, over 400 children were taken away from their parents at the Yearning For Zion ranch in Eldorado, Texas. The ranch is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and housed about 700 members of the sect until the raid in April.
When I first heard about the raid, I applauded the efforts of protective services. As a parent, all I could imagine was my teenage daughter being forced to live in such an environment, where, according to the authorities, there was a pervasive atmosphere of subservience and sexual indemnity for the girls.
But the more I read about the story, the more I became alarmed at the way the state had acted. My tune abruptly changed from "how could they" in regards to the leaders of the sect and the mothers, to "how could they" in regards to protective services. Instead of imaging my daughter living in such a rigid and archaic environment, I was now imagining her being snatched from my life by overzealous "advocates" who presume they know what is happening to her or what will happen to her within my house.
So I was relieved when a state appeals court ruled on Friday that officials of the State Department of Family and Protective Services had no right to take the children away from their parents and scatter them across the state in foster homes.
Child protective services, based on a phone call that is now presumed to be a hoax, had raided the compound and seized the children, who they thought were in harm's way. There was a presumed guilt of child abuse, sexual abuse and sexual servitude among other things, as well as a risk of future danger to the children, who ranged in age from infants to 17. Child-protection officials argued that five girls at the ranch had become pregnant at 15 and 16 and that the sect pushed underage girls into marriage and sex with older men and groomed boys to enter into such unions when they grew up.
The Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled that the evidence was legally and factually insufficient to warrant giving custody of the children to the state, and that the department failed to establish that there was any imminent danger to the children.
The appeals court said the state acted too hastily in sweeping up all the children and taking them away on an emergency basis without going to court first.
They were right.
The fact that some of the children had given birth or were pregnant had been the major concern of CPS; however, the ages and marital status of the girls was never ascertained (the age of consent in Texas is 17; you can marry if you are under 18 and have a court order).
And it's not like they went in and found the teens who were pregnant or had given birth and took them away. They took all the children. Over 400 of them, including nursing infants. They considered the entire ranch as one household and thus, took all the children away.
Texas has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the U.S. Why isn't child protective services going into all those households and removing the pregnant teens from their parents? There is obviously some kind of permissiveness going on in those homes where the teens did not receive the education necessary to know how to prevent pregnancy. They might get pregnant again. Swoop in and take them away from their parents, because they might end up in the same situation again. Is that a stretch? Maybe, but it seems to me that the zealousness of Texas protective services overruled their ability to figure out how to determine fact from truth. Or maybe they didn't even care to do that in the first place.
Whether it be an alternate lifestyle or religion, there are many people who are, in a way, persecuted for living what they believe.
While I may not condone or even understand how the people inside Yearning For Zion Ranch lived or the basis of their religion, I still think they deserve the decency of getting their children back until there is legal evidence of the accusations. We have laws for a reason. We need to maintain a sense of civilized order when it comes to judging the lives of others and sanctioning them for how they live their lives. We can't circumvent or ignore our laws just because we think we are saving someone from danger, especially if that danger is only presumed. Doing that turns us into an uncivilized nation with a warped sense of right and wrong, and an imbalance in who declares those rights and wrongs.
The adults of the YFZ ranch certainly may have put their daughters in harm's way, and they may have set the young males up to be sexual predators; if the facts are all laid out, then I say, yes - go right ahead and take away those specific children who were put in those situations.
But to rush in and take all the children, without backing laws, without clear knowledge that there was actually a dangerous situation imminent, or that there was a clear future danger, is to make a mockery of the system we , as a civilized country, worked so hard to put in place.
This is why the decision of the court of appeals should be applauded, rather than the seizing of the children.
Now it is time to do the right thing, as the appeals court has stated, and get these children back to their parents until the true legal issues can be sorted out, and to hold accountable those officials who acted recklessly in taking the kids.
We need to punish those who did wrong, not those whom we think might have done wrong.