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May 20, 2008 permalink
Some FLDS parents have been turned into full-time commuters as they shuttle around Texas to see their scattered children.
New York Times
Far-Flung Placement of Children in Texas Raid Is Criticized
By KIRK JOHNSON, Published: May 20, 2008
SAN ANGELO, Tex. — Texas policy holds that when children are taken from their parents for investigation of possible abuse, geographic distances should be kept to a minimum to allow supervised visitation.
That has not, by a wide Texas mile, been the experience of Nora Jeffs, who was among the dozens of women attending court hearings here on Monday. Since her eight children were taken in the raid at a polygamist compound last month, Ms. Jeffs has been transformed into more or less an itinerant traveler, trying to visit her children, who are 18 months old to 14 years old, according to a state case worker.
Ms. Jeffs has two children in foster care in Amarillo, up in the Panhandle; one in Gonzales in south-central Texas; two in San Antonio, in Central Texas; and three in Waco, halfway between Dallas and Austin, a lawyer for Ms. Jeffs said. The closest are about 150 miles from her home in Eldorado, and the farthest are more than nine hours apart by car.
The children themselves, who are not allowed to travel while in state custody, are being encouraged to use conference telephone calls to stay in touch and to send drawings and letters.
“Her children are scattered to all corners of Texas,” said the case worker, Irene Schwaninger, in a hearing before Judge Thomas Gossett. “It’s something I’m working to rectify to the best of my ability.”
The hearings, technically meant as a 60-day check-up of the state’s plan in handling the children and families of the raid, have exposed the clanking machinery of the Texas child welfare apparatus, which has strained at the seams and spent millions of dollars to handle one of the biggest and most complex child welfare cases in the nation’s history.
Altogether, 465 children are now in state custody, after being taken from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or F.L.D.S., in a raid that began on April 3 after someone called an abuse hot line and said that she was a 16-year-old child bride being abused by her older husband in the church’s compound in Eldorado, about 45 miles south of here. The caller has still not been found.
The hearings, which are expected to go on for several weeks — one at a time before five judges at the Tom Green County Courthouse here — are the beginning step of differentiating all those families and children into individuals with their own stories.
In a first round of hearings last month, lawyers represented groups of families and children. And even on Monday, there were moments of confusion. Some children, for example, still have names and ages rendered different ways in state records.
Many of the families are also related and share last names like Jeffs, which is also the name of the F.L.D.S. leader, Warren S. Jeffs, who was convicted last year on a rape charge for imposing marriage between an under-age girl and older man in Utah. (Whether Ms. Jeffs is related to Warren Jeffs could not be determined on Monday.)
In one case on Monday afternoon, a lawyer for a mother of four named Carlene Jessop argued that the state was lumping all the families together and not acknowledging that some of them lived apart from the communal experience that the state said exposed the children to the under-age marriage practices.
“This family is not part of a commune,” said the lawyer, Nancy B. DeLong, referring to Ms. Jessop and her husband, William S. Jessop, who have said they have four children together, from 8 years old to almost 2, now in state custody. “They need to be separated out.”
Ms. DeLong argued that the Jessop case should be separated out from the larger mass of F.L.D.S. custody cases because the family’s pattern is so different. Judge Jay Weatherby denied the motion but said he would be willing to revisit it later.
In Ms. Jeffs’s case, which was the first of the day in Judge Gossett’s court, and took just over an hour, moments of cool if jargon-filled bureaucracy were interspersed with periods of seemingly heartfelt emotion.
Judge Gossett, in approving the state’s interim plan for the family — that the children remain in state custody — but reserving the right to amend it later, had stern words for Ms. Jeffs, who said in a written statement supplied by her lawyer that she would do anything to get her children back and ensure their welfare as long as it did not violate the precepts of her religious belief.
“That doesn’t give me a lot of confidence,” Judge Gossett said, staring down from the bench at Ms. Jeffs, who was dressed in a pale-blue prairie dress. “Your right to your religious belief ends when it violates the law.”
The F.L.D.S. broke off from mainstream Mormons after Mormons disavowed polygamy in 1890.
State officials said the raid and the taking of all the children in the church’s compound, called Yearning for Zion, were necessary because the culture of the sect led to illegal under-age marriage for girls and acceptance of that practice by boys — a pattern that state officials have said endangers both sexes.
Source: New York Times