Thursday, April 24, 2008

What next on Texas Mormon compound case?

By now, most the country has heard about last week’s Texas raid on a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints compound in Eldorado, including the removal of more than 400 children.

Unless the state of Texas and Child Protective Services in particular get their acts together quickly, I predict the state is going to be in a bunch of trouble, including some lawsuits against it.

This USA Today column summarizes some points for national readers. After that, I’ll add local points cleaned from Texas newspapers and my own knowledge, and offer up why I think the way I do.

• Did Texas have any option short of taking the children from their families for weeks? This is the largest child custody case in Texas and U.S. history, and the seizure of so many children is both extreme and extraordinary. Authorities said they raided the compound — belonging to an isolationist group called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), which is known to practice polygamy — after a call to a domestic abuse hotline from a 16-year-old seeking help. The caller wasn’t found, but child welfare officials said they saw several teenage girls who were pregnant or with young children. That prompted them to remove all the children.

• Did the state infringe on the group's right to practice its religion? FLDS members have invited fear and suspicion by cutting themselves off from society. It is likely that the sect built its isolated West Texas compound in 2004 to avoid outside interference. In recent days, FLDS mothers have appeared on TV wearing prairie dresses and old-fashioned hairdos. Different, yes, but the Constitution protects religious freedom, as long as it's practiced legally.

• Did anyone inside the compound violate statutory rape, child molestation or other laws? Whatever the group’s beliefs, the age of consent in Texas is 17, and the age of marriage with parental consent is 16. On TV, at least one FLDS man said he did not know Texas law prohibited sex with adolescent girls. If the law has been violated, the girls should be protected and offenders prosecuted.

• What is in the best interest of each child? What's right for one child might not be right for all 437. Appropriately, a judge has ordered that the case of each child be heard by June 5. DNA tests are being conducted to sort out tangled families. In the meantime, the emotional toll on the parents is evident. How the children are faring can only be guessed. They are being transferred to temporary foster care after being held in a coliseum in the town of San Angelo.

Now, some Texas-level observations, some of which will provide further explanation to USA Today points.

First, we can go beyond “the caller wasn’t found.” Though nobody will say anything on the record by name, it’s pretty clear this was a prank call. Without excusing anything that may have happened at the Eldorado compound, parents know that rebellious teenagers, in some cases, will make prank calls against their parents to authorities.

The state’s failure to adequately investigate that possibility before the raid could be a matter of legal liability in any lawsuits the FLDS file.

And, things like a state district judge treating the children like cattle and not having individual hearings on their custody status will only add to that.

Second, and unsurprisingly, Gov. Helmethair, aka Rick Perry, is AWOL on this issue. Why? For the same reason that folks like the Rutherford Institute are jumping in with both feet — Rick doesn’t want to alienate the Religious Right, especially now that he has announced he will run for re-election in 2010.

Third, it’s no crime to be a pregnant teen, or our jails would be even more bursting than they are now.

Fourth, as other FLDS-type cases have shown, unless this is tried very carefully (assuming criminal charges result), you run the risk of generating a Stockholm Syndrome situation where teen brides side with their non-caffeinated sugar daddies. My confidence Texas will try this, and a judge will hear it, with that level of skill? Right now, about 10 percent.

That’s especially true on statuatory rape charges. After this fiasco, good luck to the state of Texas on proving those charges.