Monday, April 14, 2008

The biggest child-welfare case in American history?

I just want to say a word about the latest stories coming out about the investigation into the polygamous sect in Texas. You no doubt have heard about the 416 children who were taken from the retreat belonging to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on April 3. Salacious details, including reports of a "marriage bed" found in the sect's temple and believed to have been used to consummate "spiritual marriages" between adult men and underage girls, have kept this story on the front pages.

But the women of the sect have gone on the offensive, beginning to talk to the media this weekend about their concerns for the treatment of their children -- many of whom are very young -- as the investigation continues.

While I believe Texas officials did the right thing by initiating the investigation, raiding the compound and removing the women and children as the investigation continues, details of this story have me concerned for the children all over again:

Of the 139 women who voluntarily left the compound with their children since an April 3 raid, only those with children 4 or younger were allowed to continue staying with them Monday, said Marissa Gonzales, spokeswoman for the state Children's Protective Services agency. She did not know how many women stayed ...

On Monday night, about three dozen women, many of them mothers, sobbed and held onto each other outside a log cabin on the sect's ranch, recounting the way police officers encircled them in a room and told them that they could not stay.

One woman, Marie, said the women weren't allowed to say goodbye to their crying children.

"They said, 'your children are ours,'" said the sobbing 32-year-old whose three sons are aged 9, 7 and 5 and who would not give her last name. "We could not even ask a question."

Attorneys began meeting with the women over the weekend. She said it was vital that the mothers be represented by lawyers. Otherwise, they could lose their children — "what we call kind of the death penalty of family law cases," she said.

A church lawyer, Rod Parker, said the 60 or so men remaining on the 1,700-acre (688-hectare) ranch have offered to leave the compound if the state would allow the women and children to return to the place with child welfare monitors. But the state Children's Protective Services agency said it had not yet seen the offer and had no comment on it.

Read the rest of the story, and you'll find that the state of Texas is having a difficult time just organizing the lawyers to represent these children and their mothers, so it's unlikely that they are capable of caring for these kids in an atmosphere completely unknown to them -- and especially without their mothers -- in a way that is not damaging to the children's psyche.

The offer by the church men to leave the compound to allow for the women and children to return -- even with child welfare monitors -- seems to be a reasonable offer and one that Texas officials cannot afford to ignore.

But at the very least, it is unconscionable to separate these children, especially the ones ages 10 and under, from their mothers. Texas officials are inspiring no confidence with this move. Whatever is revealed about the compound, there is one constant, and that is that children need their mothers, even when they are raised in unconventional circumstances that are unfamiliar and even incomprehensible to the rest of us.

This case is destined to provide landmark rulings about where the freedom of religion ends and the reach of the government begins. But as the lawyers hash it out and judges try to make sense of all the testimony, legal precedents and constitutional challenges, these little boys and girls will need reassurances that things will be OK.

They will need their mothers.