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Polygamy's child brides not yet rescued by raid

Polygamy's child brides not yet rescued by raid

The raid on the polygamist compound in Eldorado, Texas, looks a lot like a fiasco at this point.
While mothers sobbed, more than 400 youngsters were ripped from their homes, whisked off and stuffed into whatever foster care could be found, traumatized by their sudden immersion into the outside world, which they had been taught from infancy is evil.
Hundreds of cases, each needing multiple lawyers drawn from all over the state, flooded the court system. All that chaos sprung from evidence that last week was deemed insufficient by Texas's top judges. So, back went the children, two months after their removals.
Surely Texas authorities botched it with their big, scary raid on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. That isn't the way to gain what's sorely lacking, which is trust.
"One of best ways to help victims," says Carolyn Jessop, an ex-plural wife who escaped from FLDS in 2003, is to "break down the fear of law enforcement."
Utah and Arizona crafted a more sensitive approach, largely on the advice of Jessop, who went to Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff looking for help five years ago.
Forced at 18 to marry a 50-year-old man with three wives, vexed by the beatings he gave their children when displeased with her, sick of her role as her abusive husband's servant and scared their 14-year-old daughter would soon be forced to marry, Jessop took her eight children and fled. Desperate for help, she wound up telling her story to Shurtleff.
"He was so outraged, he wanted to put every single person in prison that he could," Jessop recalls.
Fleeing abuse
She urged a calmer, long-term approach, according to Jessop and Shurtleff spokesman Paul Murphy. The upshot is a program to support women and children fleeing abuse, open communication between authorities and polygamist communities and educate them on stopping domestic violence, sexual abuse and fraud, says Murphy.
Victims learn they can get help without fear that the big, bad government will come in and crush their whole community.
Earlier mass arrests of polygamists "created deep scars among fundamentalists and helped facilitate a fear of government agencies and distrust of 'outsiders,'" recounts "The Primer," a 56-page document the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona produced. It instructs government employees on building trust.
So Murphy and Jessop would surely describe Texas's tactics as heavy-handed and counter-productive?
"They did the right thing," Jessop said in a telephone interview from Utah this week. Oh sure, they should have made the whole episode less traumatic for the children.
But even a few weeks in the outside world showed the children and their mothers an alternative to the oppression so many of them suffer, says Jessop, who wrote a book about her experience, "Escape."
The part that bothers her isn't the raid but the sudden return of children to the compound this week.
"They've got to be terrified," she says. Worse, the lesson so vividly demonstrated is that for all its powers, the state can't protect them, Jessop frets.
And yet, the raid has freed at least some of the women and children from the sect. Now that the courts released them from state custody, not all are returning to the FLDS compound, according to Marleigh Meisner, spokeswoman for the Texas Child Protective Services. She says she can't say how many.
We know from court records of one 16-year-old girl not returning home. And an unspecified number of the 72 boys who had been staying at Cal Farley's Boys Ranch near Amarillo aren't returning to the Eldorado complex, either, ranch president Dan Adams told USA Today.
Meanwhile, Child Protective Services is still investigating possible abuse in individual cases.
And state criminal investigators are poring over seized documents and the results of DNA testing of hundreds of children and adults for proof that underage girls were impregnated.
Prosecutors last week released two sets of seized pictures that seemed to be wedding photos showing FLDS leader Warren Jeffs with two different 12-year-old girls, kissing them passionately on their lips. They said they also had documentary evidence that he had married a 14-year-old, also.
And yet, without the children's cooperation, proving molestation is tough. The first step in any criminal prosecution is establishing jurisdiction. DNA can't tell you where the abuse occurred.
Victim's help
Without the victim's help, Murphy says, Utah couldn't have prosecuted Jeffs, now serving time for facilitating rape and awaiting charges in Arizona.
And yet, Murphy is reluctant to trash the Texas raid.
Unlike the communities now working with authorities in Utah and Arizona, the more radical, more tightly controlled FLDS still keeps to itself.
Texas raided only after authorities, acting on a tip that now seems to have been a hoax, visited the compound and saw clearly underage girls who were pregnant. They interviewed parents who saw nothing wrong with marrying girls to older men once the girls reached puberty. Residents gave conflicting, evasive and downright false information when questioned, according to the state.
"We never faced a situation like they had in Texas," says Murphy.
You can understand why state authorities felt a need to protect the children and to move quickly.
Still, a more focused option would have avoided a massive, traumatic dislocation of children. Why take children in no imminent danger of physical harm, such as boys or girls younger than, say, 10?
You can only rarely prosecute polygamy as a standalone crime, or remove children from homes due to it, because it is so difficult to prove and blowback from such raids makes them counterproductive.
So you need what you always need in cases like this: proof of individual abuse.
I'm thinking they got that. I'm hoping they also got a lesson in what to do with it.
Ann Woolner is a Bloomberg news columnist.


Updated : 2021-06-18 17:56 GMT+08:00