From the start, Texas officials insisted the sex abuse investigation involving 439 children living in a polygamist community didn’t present any unique challenges.
"This situation has been treated just like any of the tens of thousands of cases CPS handles every year," flashed an e-mail from Gov. Rick Perry’s office shortly after April 3, 2008, the day Texas Child Protective Services entered the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado. "Only the setting and the number of children involved is unique."
One year later, it’s clear the investigation, which ballooned into the nation’s largest child custody case, was anything but typical.
From the enormous time and money spent - more than $12 million in taxpayer dollars on everything from foster care and genetic testing to security, hotels, transportation and overtime pay for hundreds of state workers - CPS workers determined only 12 teen girls among the 439 children had been sexually abused by marrying adult members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
While criminal charges are pending from the Texas Attorney General’s office against 11 of the sect’s men for their role in arranging illegal marriages, the CPS investigation, which began with a hoaxster phone call, appeared to have fizzled before it ever began.
Attorneys and court advocates for the children believe two main factors hamstrung the agency’s inquiry from start: the decision to take all of the children from the ranch and the church members’ own circuitous DNA muddled by years of intermarriage among a handful of families.
Made use of the Web
Sect members had access to better-than-average legal counsel and church assets once valued at $100 million, putting them in a better position to fight the state agency than most parents investigated.
Despite their hold on 19th century dress, they were quick to use cameras and the Web to plead their case.
Sect members wasted no time in arguing that the state’s probe into their practice of marrying girls to adult men was merely a ruse to persecute them for their closed lifestyle, parked on a sprawling 1,700-acre ranch.
"They were trying to pull another Waco. They didn’t bring in all those guns for looks," said Willie Jessop, the spokesman for the 800 or so living at the compound when CPS and law enforcement began taking the children, an act that would spark around-the-clock media attention for months. "When there wasn’t any guns, they changed their story to ‘The belief was the problem.’?"
The number of children involved, their unusual lifestyle - one where even processed modern food made them physically ill - and their difficulty in identifying which family they belonged to, defied any Texas legal playbook.
"I don’t think anyone’s seen a case like this or will see a case like this again," said Randy Stout, a San Angelo attorney.
The state’s unique reasoning for taking all the children - that the sect’s polygamist structure and unique communal living arrangements put all the children at risk - was quickly defeated by attorneys for the children’s parents when appealed all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.
"Removal of the children was not warranted," the court said in its five-page ruling last May 29.
But it was a retreat from what some say was established CPS policy that contributed most to the abuse case unraveling.
By July, CPS lawyers began moving to dismiss all of the children’s cases from court oversight - an odd move, many thought, considering the energy the state had expended to take the children in the first place.
"It became apparent to us that the decision had been made to kind of shove it (the children’s cases) down," said Debra Brown, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Tom Green County. CPS lost its leverage
Also, evidence collected for the criminal case may have been held back from those involved in the CPS case, Brown and other say, preventing CPS lawyers from moving forward with efforts to permanently remove the children. She said her office had been earlier informed by CPS workers the agency had at least three or four dozen families with "red flags" for abuse.
Once parents no longer faced the prospect of losing their children permanently, CPS caseworkers lost their leverage with the families, those involved said.
There was no way, attorneys agree, that the state could have tried 439 individual child abuse cases. But instead of concentrating on a core group of red-flagged families, CPS workers began quickly dismissing almost all of the children’s cases.
And after the Supreme Court ruling, the threat of parental rights termination was off the table.
"One day we’re doing this," Brown said of the rush to thoroughly investigate abuse. "And then the next, they’re non-suited."
By December, with most of the children released from court oversight, CPS officials reported they had confirmed 12 girls were victims of sexual abuse.
No more child marriage?
Another thing that appeared to undercut CPS’ case was the sect’s willingness to halt underage marriages.
State officials now point to the sect’s offer to change as the agency’s greatest victory.
"I cannot help but believe that we changed the culture there," said Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman for CPS.
She concedes, however, there is no way to check on the sect to make sure they have kept that promise.
For the sect, life is slowly returning to normal in Eldorado. Jessop said about 70 percent of the families have returned. A civil rights lawsuit against the state is expected to be filed in the coming months and criminal charges against 12 men are set for trial beginning this fall.