Polygamist sect children present a cultural challenge for foster-care facilities

Youngsters arrive at Harris, Brazoria County homes

Houston Chronicle/April 25, 2008

As the last of 462 children from a polygamist ranch were arriving at foster homes in the Houston area and throughout the state Friday, their new caretakers were prepped on how to handle them.

No red clothing. No red shoes.

"No television, movies, Internet and radio especially at first," cautioned one of two primers sent to child care workers from Texas Department of Child Protective Services. The instructions were issued this week to those caring for the children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints ranch in West Texas.

The two guides were crafted this week to help foster care workers at 16 different residential facilities, including those in the Houston area, who will interact with children from the reclusive breakaway Mormon sect.

"Help them with self-esteem, guilty feelings, shame, confusion about mainstream culture, and learning basic decision making skills," stated the "Model for Care For Children From the Yearning For Zion Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints Sect," released to the Houston Chronicle by CPS.

The second guide, the "Cultural Awareness Guide for Children From Eldorado," offered child care staffers a laundry list of the children's dietary and clothing needs.

"The color 'RED' is not acceptable for clothing," the memo stated. FLDS church members believe red is reserved for Jesus Christ because when he returns, he will be wearing red robes.

The final busloads of FLDS children left a mass shelter at the San Angelo Coliseum on Friday bound for group homes and shelters around the state, including those in the Houston area.

Many of the three dozen children who got off the buses Friday night at Kidz Harbor near Liverpool in Brazoria County were infants some carried by young women wearing prairie style dresses and others carried by CPS workers.

"They were much younger than we expected them to be," said Liverpool Mayor Mike Peters, standing in front of Kidz Harbor. He said about 25 were very small children, all 5 years old or younger. Most of the others appeared to be mothers of the young children.

Children arriving at the home were shielded by law enforcement officers, members of the home's staff and volunteers holding up sheets.

Kidz Harbor volunteer Bruce Colbert said the children would be kept separate from the 29 other children at the home and would be allowed to conduct any religious practices they wanted to do.

He said school-age children will not go to public school, but will be educated on site by the Alvin Independent School District.

The girls will continue to wear long, prairie-style dresses they're accustomed to.

"We're going to try to make them as comfortable as we can," he said.

The trip from San Angelo to Kidz Harbor took extra time Friday because the bus had to stop several times to ease children's motion sickness.

"Some of them probably haven't even ridden in a vehicle before," state trooper Dial King said.

About a block from the facility, one man, Charles Walker, held a homemade sign saying "KID NAP?"

Two white buses arrived at the Boys and Girls Country facility near Hockley in Montgomery County, escorted by a state Department of Public Safety car and an ambulance. The buses pulled in and went around the back of the facility. It could not be determined how many children were in the buses.

CPS officials said they now hope to break a "code of silence" that has prevented them from learning much about what life was like for 462 children removed from a West Texas polygamist ranch three weeks ago.

While not downplaying the emotional trauma involved in separating women from their children, Texas Child Protective Services spokesman Darrell Azar said that once the children are settled in their new locations, they may finally feel free to speak the truth about such basic matters as their names and ages.

"The children are in a position to no longer on a daily basis be influenced by adults who have encouraged a code of silence," said Azar. "Now that they are away from that influence they may become more comfortable and we will have a better chance of learning the truth."

The guides pointed out an isolated way of life. The children's culture has "a deep instilled fear of the outside world," the memos warned.

"When discipline is needed, be aware of the potentially harsh practices children may have experienced and their belief that obedience is important from a religious perspective as it relates to their favor with God and their eternity," the memo stated.

None of the children will be sent to individual foster homes in order to keep together large sibling groups. The foster care facilities have been told to educate the children at the facility or through private schools.

If the children are in foster care for an extended time, they could eventually attend mainstream schools.

"Plan for slow and gradual integration with mainstream school and population, only after being assured of readiness," the guide advises.

Women who were among seven who returned Thursday to the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado described the anguished separation from their children Friday.

"There are no words to describe how it was," said Velvet, a mother who was forced to leave her 13-month-old. "We've been staying up nights to watch over the children because we didn't know what would happen."

Velvet and another woman who spoke declined to give their last names.

An FLDS Web site set up to accept donations for the legal custody battle said that 40 mothers who decided to go to battered women's shelters in San Antonio and San Angelo did so because CPS workers told them they would have a better chance of seeing the children.

Azar called those allegations "blatantly untrue" and said CPS will work to ensure that all mothers can visit their children in foster care.

"No public relations effort can explain away dozens of underage mothers and pregnant minors. No one can explain away a pattern of grooming children to become wives of older men, and girls as young as 13 becoming mothers," he said.

While some members of the FLDS may practice polygamy, lawyers for the mothers have said that the state needs to prove each individual child is in harm's way.

They will argue Tuesday before an Austin-based appeals court that state District Judge Barbara Walther's decision to remove all the children was illegally broad. Legal aid attorney Robert Doggett, who represents 48 mothers, said he will seek an order that each child should have a hearing in the county where they are now living.

Azar said Walther plans to begin hearing cases mid-May for children individually or in small groups. "There will not be another mass hearing," he said.

With a female chaplain juggling tennis balls to keep the children entertained, the move of the final 260 from the mass shelter early Friday went smoothly, Azar said.

"The children were mostly quiet. They were a bit sleepy because they were up early. Caseworkers explained what was happening and the children responded well," he said.

A caseworker was assigned to each toddler for the bus ride.

"To us this is a very good day. It means the children are living in more normal settings where they will be protected and safe," Azar said.

The group of children, while large, shouldn't have a serious impact on the state's foster care system because caseloads have declined over the past 18 months as CPS implements new laws designed to keep children with their families or place them with relatives.

There were about 17,400 children in foster care last Month, down from about 20,500 in December 2006.

Reaction to the raid of the FLDS compound continued to be mixed. Dozens of people from around the country have contacted Gov. Rick Perry's office to express support or disagreement with the largest child abuse case in Texas history.

A release of e-mails from Perry's office also showed many people had been urging the state to do something about the sect in Eldorado for several years, particularly after FLDS leader Warren Jeffs was convicted last September in Utah for his role in arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her older cousin.

"After watching the Warren Jeffs trial, I was appalled to learn that a FLDS sect of his followers had located in Eldorado, TX," wrote Mrs. Tommie Burkham of Ben Franklin, Texas, in an e-mail dated Sept. 25, 2007. "Shame on you, Gov. Perry, if you allow these people to carry on."

A number of e-mails from Utah have criticized the state's action, and a group of about 100 protesters voice their opposition outside Thursday's NBA playoff game in Salt Lake City between the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz.

"The way your state has raided the YFZ Ranch is an absolute outrage! Does the fact that these people have different religious beliefs exempt them from the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Due Process, or ANY civil liberties at all?" wrote Richard Johnson of Salt Lake City in an April 7 email.

Terri Langford reported from Houston, Richard Stewart from Liverpool and Janet Elliott from Austin.

Chronicle photographer Steve Campbell in Hockley and The Associated Press contributed.

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