A year after FLDS raid, state says it has no regrets

Despite controversy, agency's leader insists, sect's children are better off

Houston Chronicle/April 3, 2009

The dramatic removal of 439 children a year ago from a polygamist settlement was a sound decision and the state would not hesitate to respond the same way again, Texas’ top child protection official said on Friday

"Texas will not idly stand by while they sexually abuse children," Anne Heiligenstein, commissioner of Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said, referring to her agency’s findings that 12 teen girls living on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ ranch in West Texas were married to adult men.

Heiligenstein, named DFPS commissioner in December, said her agency’s staffers acted correctly, made no mistakes and returned the children to a far healthier environment than the one they were taken from on April 3, 2008.

"We not only brought this issue of abuse to the light of day but we educated FLDS mothers and children about abuse, what it looks like and how to report it," the commissioner said. "The environment that the children returned to is safer than the one they left."

Heiligenstein, whose agency oversees Texas Child Protective Services, made the statements at a news conference held on the anniversary of the children’s removal.

A year ago Friday, CPS officials were dispatched to the breakaway Mormon sect’s Yearning For Zion Ranch after a caller claiming to be an underage FLDS bride said she had been sexually and physically abused by her adult husband.

While the call was later determined to be a hoax, CPS workers made the decision to remove the children after they found several teens who were either pregnant or mothers. Blaming FLDS ‘deception’

FLDS church members criticized the state’s raid of their Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado and have threatened a civil rights lawsuit against the state, which spent $12.8 million on the investigation.

But Heiligenstein said the FLDS’ initial resistance to CPS made the removal of the children more difficult than it needed to be.

"There was a pattern of organized deception," she said, referring to staffers’ reports that both children and mothers deliberately gave workers the wrong names or refused to give any information at all.

The commissioner also said teen girls on the ranch and their mothers now understand that underage marriage to adult men is sexual abuse. She also said she believes that the church’s pledge last year not to "sanctify" underage marriage was also a positive outcome.

"A year ago today, FLDS was a community where sexual abuse of girls was a way of life," Heiligenstein said. "Today, girls know that the term ‘spiritual marriage’ is sexual abuse and they know if they call, someone will come." Girl, 14, still in foster care

However, in a series of interviews with the girls, aired on the Oprah Winfrey Show this week, several teen girls told the talk-show host that marrying adult men while underage was their destiny.

All but one of the 439 children were returned to their families after the Texas Supreme Court in May 2008 upheld an appeals court ruling that said CPS acted too soon in removing the children from their homes.

That one child, a 14-year-old girl, remains in foster care. Documents indicate she was married to jailed FLDS leader Warren Jeffs two years ago, when she was just 12.

As a result of the CPS investigation, 12 men, including Jeffs, have been charged for their roles in underage marriages. Those trials begin in the fall.

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