Foster care could be wrenching for Texas sect children

Associated Press/April 24, 2008

San Angelo, Texas - Many of the children have seen little or no television. They have been essentially home-schooled all their lives. Most were raised on garden-grown vegetables and twice-daily prayers with family. They frolic in long dresses and buttoned-up shirts from another century. They are unfailingly polite.

The 437 children taken from the polygamist compound in West Texas are being scattered to group homes and boys' and girls' ranches across the state, plunged into a culture radically different from the community where they and their families shunned the outside world as a hostile, contaminating influence on their godly way of life.

The state Child Protective Services program said it chose foster homes where the youngsters can be kept apart from other children for now.

"We recognize it's critical that these children not be exposed to mainstream culture too quickly or other things that would hinder their success," agency spokeswoman Shari Pulliam said. "We just want to protect them from abuse and neglect. We're not trying to change them."

The children were swept up in a raid earlier this month on the Yearning for Zion Ranch run 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. State child-welfare authorities said there was evidence of physical and sexual abuse at the ranch.

The youngsters are being moved out of the crowded San Angelo Coliseum and will be placed in 16 temporary facilities around Texas - some as far away as Houston, 500 miles off - until individual custody hearings can be held.

Those hearings could result in a number of possibilities: Some children could be placed in permanent foster care; some parents who have left the sect may win custody; some youngsters may be allowed to return to the ranch in Eldorado; and some may turn 18 before the case is complete and will be allowed to choose their own fates.

Several attorneys for FLDS children called Wednesday for custody cases to be spread out among family law courts across Texas - venue changes that, they acknowledged, would likely require authorization from the Texas Supreme Court.

"It's one court that's bogged down with 437 children. There is no possible way that my client's needs can be addressed in a timely fashion," attorney Laura Shockley at a Dallas news conference.

Children raised on the FLDS compound must wear pioneer-style dress and keep their hair pinned up in braids, reflecting their standards of modesty. For the same reason, they have little knowledge of pop culture. They must pray twice a day. They tend vegetable gardens and raise dairy cows, and must eat fresh food. And they are exceedingly polite, always saying "please" and "thank you."

In contrast, many other children in foster care are worldly-wise beyond their years, and are there because they have been exposed to drugs or other criminal behavior.

Experts and lawyers say foster care will change the sect children.

"These children who have lived in a very insular culture and are suddenly thrust into mainstream culture. There's going to be problems," said Susan Hays, who represents a toddler in the custody case. "They are a throwback to the 19th century in how they dress and how they behave."

Ken Driggs, an Atlanta lawyer has long studied and written about the FLDS, said that if kept away from their parents' culture long enough, the children may begin to emulate those around them.

Pulliam said the temporary foster care facilities have been briefed on the children's needs. "We're not going to have them in tank tops and shorts," she said.

Authorities will try to obtain the youngsters' traditional clothing from their parents, and also arrange for visits from some of the adults, state attorney Gary Banks said.

In addition, CPS has sent instructions to the foster homes to feed the youngsters fresh fruits and vegetables, chicken, rice and other foods that may have been grown on the 1,700-acre ranch.

"They don't eat a lot of processed food and we're not going to encourage that," Pulliam said, but noted that if the children want to eat processed or junk food, no one is going to stop them.

Those who cling to the old traditions may pose another problem for the state - they might run away. Driggs said polygamists' children have fled foster homes before because "they want to go home, and they want to go to people and circumstances they're used to."

The children have been educated in a schoolhouse, using a home-school curriculum, on the compound, and may actually be ahead of public-school students their ages, lawyers said.

Hays and Pulliam said the children will continue to be home-schooled by the temporary foster-care providers instead of being thrown into big schools, where they could be bullied because of their differences.

While their diets, dress and prayers can be accommodated with a little planning, other experts said their emotional needs may be trickier to deal with.

Dr. Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist who testified for the children last week, said FLDS children may be easily taken advantage of by outsiders because of the strict control church leaders have had over their daily lives.

People who have left the sect "felt emotionally incapable of decision-making," he said.

Associated Press writers Monica Rhor in Houston and Paul Weber in Dallas contributed to this report.

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