Youths' transition to world outside of polygamist compound likely to be rocky

Dallas Morning News/April 23, 2008

Austin - Children's homes and shelters across Texas prepared to welcome 437 youngsters from a polygamist sect by turning off TVs, serving a lot of bland chicken and vegetable dishes, setting up home schools and accommodating twice-daily devotionals.

State officials and foster agency leaders said Wednesday they'll try not to fling the youths from the barrens of Schleicher County into a pulsating pop culture one they have been taught is the devil's handiwork.

Until this month, the youths inhabited a cloistered world where they couldn't swear, curse, date, dance, watch TV, go to malls or movies, play Nintendo, or surf the Web.

They instead ate fresh food, most of it home-grown; wore long dresses and long-sleeved, buttoned-down shirts; and seldom strayed far from a secluded Eldorado ranch.

Now that the children are in state care, though, foster care providers are being told: Please cushion the shock. If you can.

"This is a unique population that has already been through quite a bit," said Ed Knight, president of Presbyterian Children's Homes and Services, which expects 14 of the children at its Waxahachie campus. He said the agency will "bend and stretch" its policies and usual practices.

"We are not planning to integrate these children into our normal population," Mr. Knight said. "They will in fact be isolated."

The nonprofit Presbyterian agency won't force the polygamist children "to take on some aspects of our culture that are foreign to them," he said. "We're prepared to bend and stretch and make the experience with us a nurturing one."

Child Protective Services officials removed the youths April 4, saying they were in danger of sexual and physical abuse. A CPS official said Wednesday that state officials have consulted with national experts on child abuse and officials in Utah, Arizona and Colorado to establish foster care guidelines.

"We have recognized that it is critical that these children not be exposed to mainstream culture too quickly or in ways that would hinder their success should they be reunited with their family," said CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins.

Won't go to school

For now, state-paid caregivers will keep the children on private premises and not enroll them in public schools, Mr. Crimmins said.

In Fort Worth, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, citing privacy considerations, would not say how many of the Eldorado children are being sent to the Catholic diocese's 20-bed shelter for young children and 25 foster homes that handle difficult cases.

However, Fort Worth Independent School District spokesman Clint Bond said he understood "the number is around 30."

Even if CPS had not ordered providers to keep home schooling the youths, Mr. Bond said it was probably too late to enroll them in public school before classes end June 5.

"In all honesty, they've been home-schooled, but we don't know what that means at this point," Mr. Bond said. "We don't know if they're ahead of grade, behind grade, where they are."

Mr. Crimmins said 12 of the roughly 17,500 Texas children in foster care are now home-schooled. Still, he said, if child welfare officials later decide that a sect child's progress would be disrupted if they're dropped into a public school this fall, home schooling mat continue indefinitely.

Still in San Angelo

Mr. Crimmins said 111 of the children were moved from San Angelo on Tuesday. He said no additional children were bused out Wednesday because officials wanted to give a report on the children's health and the state's placement plans to Judge Barbara Walther.

The rest are expected to leave this week.

The children were removed from the West Texas compound owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a renegade Mormon splinter group that believes in marrying off underage girls to older men.

CPS is sending the sect's children to 16 nonprofit foster-care agencies, most affiliated with mainstream Christian churches. The state has told the providers not to force their usual religious observances or instruction on the children, Mr. Crimmins said.

"We've given the caregivers guidance about the children's religious beliefs. That has to include prayer time, hymn signing. And they have to have appropriate privacy," he said.

Some shelters and homes receiving the children have bedsheets with cartoon characters, TVs, and popular toys and gadgets. Mr. Crimmins said CPS didn't tell providers to remove TVs or deny exposure to them; it simply advised them that the children "come from a living environment where they're not allowed to watch TV."

In Waxahachie, there's a large-screen TV and Xbox in the family room of a spacious home at Presbyterian Children's Home. Two computers and a radio are in the study area along one wall of a large dining room.

Mr. Knight, the head of the agency, said there are no plans to remove the electronics.

"But those things just won't be utilized," he said.

To maintain the sect children's "sense of remaining together," Mr. Knight said they will share rooms – two or three to a bedroom. They'll eat and study together.

And they will perform household chores with a married couple who'll live in the home. It sits on the edge of the Presbyterian agency's 360-acre property in a small residential neighborhood.

Mr. Crimmins said CPS wants input from the children's court-appointed lawyers, psychologists and relatives to make sure a "service plan" crafted for each has the right ingredients.

Still, one veteran foster care provider predicts rocky days ahead for the sect's children.

"They're not of the world as we know it," said Roy Block, a fundraiser for a San Antonio-based child placing agency and former president of the Texas Foster Family Association. "You can't just thrust them into that and expect what we consider normal behavior."

Staff writer Joanna Cattanach reported from Waxahachie.

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