Sect case prompts reform efforts

Go San 15, 2009

Austin - Concho Valley lawmakers are drafting legislation they hope will prevent a repeat of the costly and controversial removal of hundreds of children from a Schleicher County poly-gamous compound.

Reps. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, and Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, are working on a bill they say would provide the state's Child Protective Services agency with more authority to remove alleged perpetrators at the outset of an investigation into reported abuse.

"In this case, removing the victims" led to more problems because of the large numbers and sensitive needs of the children at the YFZ Ranch, Hilderbran said. "It did more harm than good to have only that option."

CPS raided the ranch, home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, for a week starting on April 3, but quickly was overwhelmed by the unexpectedly large number of children it found there. The 439 removals made the case the largest in U.S. history and placed demands on the state and court system neither had the tools to handle.

The state thus far has paid $14 million to shelter the children, reimburse attorneys, pay employee overtime, reimburse local entities and conduct civil and criminal investigations.

State law allows the agency to remove alleged perpetrators from a home, but only after an investigation has probed far enough to identify the alleged abuser and determine whether another adult in the home can safely take care of the alleged victim, said CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins.

According to CPS' final report of the investigation, investigators quickly found what they believed was evidence of abuse beyond what was reported in a series of late March phone calls - but they could not quickly determine the familial status between adults and children at the ranch.

"There were a lot of mistakes made, I would say," said Hilderbran, whose district includes Schleicher County. In 2005 he pushed through a bill limiting the ability of teens to marry with parental consent, now the basis for several criminal indictments handed down against FLDS members. "By and large, the mistakes were made because of no clear policy ... to address this type of situation."

Both legislators said they remain supportive of CPS' initial action; Hilderbran emphasized, "I don't regret it personally or politically."

Ultimately, two state appellate courts ordered the children returned, a rebuke to CPS and 51st District Judge Barbara Walther, who authorized the emergency removals.

Walther had expressed frustration, particularly during the en masse initial hearing, about the rigidity of state family law. She told attorneys in the case she could provide individual hearings - as the state requires - and blow past the state's 14-day deadline, or meet the deadline with an en masse proceeding.

"We're trying to give much more discretion on the part of the judge," Darby said. "The law gave her very little flexibility."

For its part, the sect welcomed the Legislature's efforts to assess what needs to be changed in the aftermath of the raid.

Spokesman Willie Jessop said FLDS officials will be in touch with Hilderbran, seeking to include their voices in any legislation to come out of the session.

"If they'll meet with us, we would be very grateful," Jessop said. "Everyone has a common interest in protecting children."

Jessop cited in particular concerns with how the state interprets the phrase "imminent danger," which was used as justification for removing the children and tied to what the state alleged was the sect's "pervasive pattern and practice" of marrying underage girls to adult men.

Meeting with legislators would signal another step in the sect's continued efforts to engage public officials; Jessop spoke Monday to Schleicher County commissioners, asking to be treated on an equal footing with other county taxpayers.

The assumption that you'll be left alone is a dangerous one, Jessop said.

"The burden is on us a little bit to initiate it. ... We certainly have tried to make contact with them, but we're going to try to open the doors of communication once again."

CPS does not lobby or advocate for legislation, Crimmins said, but it has been contacted for background information by Hilderbran's office.

While legislation is moving forward in the House - Hilderbran said he expects to file a bill before the end of the month - state senators also will be eyeing reforms arising from the case.

"We're very concerned," said Sen. Jane Nelson, the Flower Mound Republican who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which oversees CPS' parent Department of Family and Protective Services. "We'll be holding hearings to make sure any needs are addressed."

Likewise, Sen. Robert Duncan, the Lubbock Republican whose district includes San Angelo and Schleicher County, will sponsor a courts reform bill this session, although he said it likely will have little bearing on the system that handled the FLDS case.

"I don't know how you change what you can't anticipate," Duncan said. "I don't see a massive overhaul of the system."

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