In San Angelo on Monday morning, June 2, Texas District Judge Barbara Walther signed an order that allowed more than 400 children from Yearning for Zion Ranch to go home. They had been in the care of the state’s Department of Child and Protective Services since early April.
Her order complied with earlier rulings from the court of appeals that were upheld by the Texas Supreme Court on May 29. Later in the day, she issued an additional emergency order that kept one child from returning to the ranch because the youngster “is an identified victim of sexual abuse.”
The men of YFZR, who usually appear in public in contemporary clothing while the women wear the garb of a bygone era, were inconvenienced the least throughout the entire process. They were probably the most responsible for the ranch’s difficulties with Texas law, however.
“We are not inclined to disturb the court of appeal’s decision,” the majority of the justices of the Texas Supreme Court had stated. “On the record before us, removal of the children was not warranted.” Contrary to the arguments of the Department, they had indicated that “the Family Code gives the district court broad authority to protect children short of separating them from their parents and placing them in foster care.”
Judge Walther took full advantage of this “broad authority.” Her order forbids parents from allowing their children to leave Texas. It also specifies that the Department may continue to examine the children and to make unannounced visits to Yearning for Zion Ranch. It requires the adults to attend parenting classes and to report their intentions if they plan to travel more than 100 or so miles away.
Three of the nine justices on the Texas Supreme Court partly agreed and partly disagreed with its ruling. They concurred “that the trial court abused its discretion by awarding custody of the male children and pre-pubescent female children to the Department as temporary conservator.” [Emphasis supplied.] Yet they held “that the trial court did not abuse its discretion as to the demonstrably endangered population of pubescent girls.” [Emphasis supplied.]
Relying upon the records of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the three dissenting justices estimated there to have been: a sixteen year old with a child, a sixteen year old who was pregnant, two pregnant fifteen year olds, and a thirteen year old who had conceived. These five cases justified the Department in removing all the pubescent female children, they wrote.
Additional factors also influenced their thinking. The belief of many FLDS members that females are eligible for marriage and childbearing at the onset of menses also counted. So did the cordial but uncooperative responses the Department received from those at the ranch during its investigations. The Department did all it reasonably could before taking the drastic step of removing the pubescent girls, they held. But it should not have removed any of the boys and prepubescent girls.
Because it was so central to the Department’s case at the district court of appeals, I anticipated that the Texas Supreme Court would address the notion that all those who lived at YFZR belonged to a single “household.” That the majority opinion did not do this was not too surprising because it agreed with the court of appeals that the Department had not established (1) imminent danger (2) of physical abuse (3) for which it had tried less drastic measures without success.
But I do not know how the three justices who dissented could have justified removing all the pubescent girls without giving this theory at least some credence. Five cases of sexual abuse would not warrant removing all the pubescent girls from several blocks in an urban neighborhood unless they were all members of a single “household.” Why should they have here?
The return of the children to YFZR is not the end of this story. It is but another chapter in the narrative of a long and difficult effort on the part of Texas and other states to protect the children at places like YFZR without making the Department’s mistake. The success of this ongoing effort depends in large measure upon the recognition that we are dealing with ways of life that have been in place for generations.
Insofar as they include physical and sexual abuse, these practices must be uprooted. But these roots are so deep and tangled, and they are frequently embedded in such remote soil, that this is not easy. We should apply strong and steady pressure and not indulge in occasional outbursts of overly severe law enforcement that only make things worse.
YZFR is illustrative of the larger challenge. The closest city is Eldorado. Founded in 1895, and the setting for a movie starring John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, its population in 2000 was 1,951 people. By 2006 it had decreased to 1,828. This city is in Schleicher County which had an estimated population of 2,776 the same year. Some estimate that about 1,000 members of the FLDS church have moved into the region. If a significant number of them register to vote and start exerting their political power, they will pretty much be able to run things.
Meanwhile, with almost 1,700 acres and enough water, animals, crops, and orchards to take care of its residents, YFZR is a self-sufficient, rural “gated community” where some estimate that a million dollars are spent each month on improvements.
The most basic problem in such regions—not only at YFZR—is the pervasive impression that the men are accountable to no one but each other, and for all practical purposes this is the case. These smart and strong men usually keep each other in check, but not always. When they don’t, things can get as bad as they are among the gangsters in any inner city. This is why the first priority must be to establish the general rule of law.
David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.