Polygamist sect children bused to Southeast Texas

Officials try to keep family groups together, and some appear headed for Houston area

Houston Chronicle/April 23, 2008

Some of the 437 children from a polygamist compound in arid West Texas soon may be bound for group homes in green, tree-shaded locations in Harris, Montgomery and Brazoria counties.

Buses carrying the first 114 children left San Angelo on Tuesday after state District Judge Barbara Walther issued a placement order telling officials to make every attempt to place sibling groups together.

The order listed facilities from the Panhandle to Southeast Texas, including Kidz Harbor in Brazoria County, Boys and Girls Country near Hockley, and Arrow Child and Family Ministries in Montgomery County.

The busing of the children immediately stirred controversy because it came before lawyers for the children were notified, said Guy Choate, a San Angelo attorney.

A list of where individual children would be placed was not made public, but an attorney who saw the list said that 47 of the 5- to 17-year-old children would be sent to the Houston area, and the San Antonio area would receive 125.

Child welfare authorities have said the children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints likely will not go to traditional foster care families, but to larger residential settings so groups of up to 20 siblings can remain together.

Child Protective Services spokesman Darrell Azar refused to say where the children are being sent in order to protect their confidentiality.

"We don't know how long we will have them," Azar said. "We are still conducting DNA tests to determine family relationships. It could take two months to get the results."

He said there are no plans to put the children up for adoption.

Authorities raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch beginning April 3 after receiving an abuse report. State child welfare officials sought custody of all the children, alleging that the sect's practices of marrying underage girls to older men put them at risk.

Seeking donations

While children from the West Texas compound will continue to live in the large family groups they are used to, they will find a different environment in the Houston area from the near-desert where they grew up. Kidz Harbor is in a sprawling, single-level brick and concrete block building at the end of a series of winding Brazoria County roads about two miles from Liverpool.

The six-acre campus has big oak trees shading lush green lawns leading to Chocolate Bayou.

The building was constructed about 30 years ago as a drug rehabilitation hospital. Kidz Harbor was created five years ago by the late Rev. Jim Green, who died in 2004.

The center is now operated by a nonprofit group called Jim Green Kidz Harbor Inc., said administrator Angela Colbert, who is Green's daughter.

The children from the compound will live in two- to four-person rooms in one wing of the facility.

Rooms to Go, a furniture store chain, donated most of the beds the children will use, as well as bedding, Colbert said. The home still needs donations of chests of drawers, towels and other personal items.

The children will be sent to public schools in nearby Alvin. School district spokeswoman Shirley Brothers said the district is asking the Texas Education Agency for direction on any special needs of the children.

She said the district plans to test and assess the educational needs of each of the new arrivals and place them in the school programs they need.

The same process was used for about 150 students who arrived in the district after Hurricane Katrina, Brothers said.

"We're used to getting kids who come from all sorts of situations," said Ollie Russell, administrator of Kidz Harbor's short-term care program. "Many of them come from troubled backgrounds. The first thing we need to do is put them in a stable, loving environment."

He said a few children walk away, mainly from schools, "but not many."

Behind the Arrow Child and Family Ministries green iron gates near Porter in Montgomery County is a forested haven spread over 111 acres. A narrow road winds around to an open green area where the three main living quarters are located.

The buildings resemble log cabins, but inside are the amenities of a modern home leather furniture, TVs, stainless steel kitchens and lots of bedrooms with single beds. The facility also has four small cabins hidden in the woods. They each have a living area, kitchenette and several bedrooms.

Private and charter schools

Employees have begun sprucing up the place. Mops, buckets, paper towels and other cleaning supplies were piled on the floor of one of the cabins.

The children will have a chance to ride paddle boats in the fishing pond or interact with the nine horses at the facility. There's also a swimming pool and sports pavilion.

The children will not attend public schools while living at the facility, founder Mark Tennant said. They will likely attend private or charter schools, he said.

Boys and Girls Country, near Hockley, about 35 miles northwest of Houston, can accommodate up to 88 children in 11 eight-person cottages, said director Shirley Wright. The children live with house-parents and attend public schools.

"We are a place for children to grow up when their families can't take care of them," she said.

"They live with us usually between two years to all the way through college," Wright said.

CPS has cited the facility a number of times, once for failing to promptly report sexual abuse.

The cost of housing the children isn't being released, Azar said, but it is being paid for with federal money the state receives. He said the state pays group homes from $38.59 to $227 a day for each child, depending upon their needs.

Since there are already 17,500 children in the state foster care program, he said, "this won't break the bank."

Chronicle reporters Janet Elliott and Jennifer Latson, and San Antonio Express-News reporter Lisa Sandberg contributed to this story.

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