Decades after Utah took FLDS kids, family waits for an apology

Mother got her kids back months later in a polygamy case that resonates today

The Salt Lake Tribune/November 1, 2008

More than 50 years ago, Vera Black refused to renounce her religious belief in polygamy - giving in only after Utah prepared to place seven of her children with adoptive families.

Now, those children have asked the state to apologize to their mother.

They made the request two days after an Oct. 22 debate at the University of Utah College of Law that explored whether children should be removed from polygamous homes.

The obvious backdrop: Texas authorities' temporary separation this spring of 439 children from their parents, all members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

During the debate, New York law professor Marci Hamilton praised the 1955 Utah Supreme Court ruling in the Black case, which said polygamous homes are unfit for children. Hamilton, critical of Utah's effort to address polygamy, called the decision "good law."

Hundreds of miles away in Hildale, Vera Black's children took a decidedly different view. They spent about seven months in state custody in the 1950s before being returned to their mother.

"We'd like to extend an opportunity to the state of Utah to apologize while she's still living," said Sheldon Black, born after his older siblings and parents were reunited.

Black is 90, bedridden and in frail health. But her memory of those long-ago events is still sharp.

"I'm just grateful, thankful to Heavenly Father" they came home, said Black, who gave a brief interview surrounded by her children.

'It didn't work'

The Black prosecution was designed to test the theory that children could be considered neglected because of their parents' teachings and polygamous relationships.

Vera and Leonard Black were the only couple targeted by Utah as part of the 1953 raid to eradicate polygamy in Short Creek, now Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Then, as now, the community is home to fundamentalist Mormons who hold plural marriage as a religious tenet.

The case played out over three years and, according to historian Ken Driggs, "scattered like quail" other Utah fundamentalist families who feared they were next.

But in the end, the raid and the Black prosecution made fundamentalists more "motivated to live polygamy," said Mary Batchelor, a co-founder of the advocacy group Principle Voices.

"What the judges suggested at that time, played out to its full extent, was too cruel to these families," she said. "It didn't work then, and it wouldn't work today."

Still, the approach used in the Black case was echoed by Texas earlier this year when investigators testified about the children's exposure to the polygamous lifestyle at the ranch.

Short Creek raid

Utah authorities had zeroed in on Vera a month after the 1953 raid, in which Arizona removed 263 children and their mothers - among them Vera's two sister wives and their children - from Short Creek.

The state charged the Blacks with negligence based on their polygamous marriage. Vera was the second of Leonard's three wives. She was 36 and had eight children, ages 1 to 17.

During a March 1954 trial, the Blacks acknowledged they had a polygamous marriage but said they had not lived together since the raid. Their attorney told the court the couple had taken no "active steps" to promote plural marriage to their children.

But prosecutors pointed out five of Leonard Black's six older daughters had married as plural wives or later became plural wives. All were younger than 18 when they married and one was 15 - which, polygamy aside, was legal then.

In her testimony, Vera Black told the judge she did not want her children to "break any laws that are reasonable" and would "let them have their choice" when it came to marriage.

But because the couple steadfastly refused to renounce plural marriage, Washington County Judge David A. Anderson found their home was an "immoral environment" and ordered their children into foster care.

They spent two weeks in state custody and then returned home while their parents appealed. In a unanimous decision, the Utah Supreme Court ruled in May 1955 that polygamy exposed children to sexual immorality.

"The practice of polygamy, unlawful cohabitation and adultery are sufficiently reprehensible, without the innocent lives of children being seared by their evil influence," the court wrote. "There must be no compromise with evil."

The court noted that if the decision was not upheld and "no bars are put in place, the task will be still more difficult for our successors to cope with."

Returned to mother

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to take the case, and in January 1956, the state took custody of seven children. The youngest child was allowed to stay with Vera because he was sick.

Six months later, as the state made plans to place her children in separate adoptive homes, Vera Black reconsidered. In a new hearing, Vera said she still believed in polygamy but would "discourage my children from entering into polygamous marriages as long as the state has laws against it."

Two days later, Vera was reunited with her children and returned with them to Short Creek.

"I don't like to go back on some of the things I believe," she told reporters, "but my children are my first responsibility."

By then, public sentiment had turned against officials involved in the raid, which is perhaps why no one ever checked up on the Blacks again. Vera had two more children with Leonard, who died in 1977.

For her children, who remained in the fundamentalist community, the traumatic experience left an indelible imprint on their lives.

Orson Black, who was then 17, described how police officers kept back their mother as the children were loaded into a vehicle to be driven to the state hospital in Provo.

"We bawled so hard until the guy driving asked us to stop," said Emily Black, who was 7 at the time.

They were placed with a foster family in Orem, but "we didn't know from day to day if we were going to stay there," Orson Black said. "They told us they were going to split us up."

Emily Black said that when case workers told her she would be adopted, she replied, " 'No, mother says we're going home, so we're going home.' "

The six months away only "made us love our parents and our religion much more," said Lillian Black, who had testified at age 12 in a custody hearing. Added Emily Black: "We saw how nice we have it."

Decades later

While Hamilton called the Black ruling "good law," subsequent decisions have essentially eviscerated it.

In a 1987 divorce case that involved polygamy, the Utah Supreme Court noted the state's child welfare code had since eliminated the "moral references" used as the basis of the Black ruling. The court found polygamy alone was an insufficient reason to deny custody.

And in 1991, the court ruled a polygamous relationship did not make parents ineligible to adopt children. Black was "overruled without mentioning it" in the adoption case, said Driggs, the historian.

Driggs, an attorney who has written extensively about the Black ruling, said it is now "frequently placed in family law textbooks as an example of the extreme reach of juvenile courts running amok."

He said he has documented evidence of an improper meeting between the judge in the case and child welfare officials that "alone should make that opinion completely invalid."

Like Vera Black's children, Driggs believes Utah owes her an apology.

"The only allegation of abuse or mistreatment of their children was the way they were raised," he said. "She was just trying to lead a life she believed in and, as far as I can tell, her children all turned out to be pretty decent adults."

But it is such history that makes critics skeptical of the sect's promises, such as its recent pledge to end underage marriage. As for an apology, no Utah official felt it appropriate to give one. Neither the Utah Attorney General's Office nor the Washington County Attorney's Office felt it appropriate to respond for the state.

Lisa Roskelley, spokeswoman for Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., said: "This administration wasn't involved in the case and doesn't have the facts about the state's involvement."

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