Texas had secret plan to separate polygamist mothers, children

The Dallas Morning News/June 4, 2008

Austin - State officials, fearing a violent reaction from members of a West Texas polygamist sect, considered a secret plan to haul hundreds of children and their mothers to Midlothian to be separated, internal e-mails show. But a judge vetoed the plan.

They also worried that mothers would try to make a "run" from the shelter with their children, feared a rampage of infections among the families and fretted about the fear of violence and state resources being overwhelmed by events.

More than 1,500 pages of e-mails between the governor's office and Child Protective Services, obtained by The Dallas Morning News under state freedom of information laws, show top executives working day and night in early April to deal with a raid on the Yearning for Zion ranch that quickly mushroomed into a massive operation. In the first week, more than 1,000 personnel were deployed and costs reached $2.3 million.

Conspicuously absent in the e-mail strings was Gov. Rick Perry. While his executive staff was exchanging information and tracking events, Mr. Perry did not receive a full briefing from officials until five days after the raid - when more than 500 people were being held in state-run shelters.

Spokeswoman Krista Piferrer said that because the situation was highly charged and fluid, Mr. Perry used the phone and personal updates from his staff to stay informed. During his administration, he has avoided using e-mail because the content is subject to open-records requests. The governor's office and CPS withheld hundreds of pages of messages, citing state laws exempting confidential information.

Ms. Piferrer said the governor was engaged but deferred to the experts at Child Protective Services and the Department of Public Safety to conduct the investigation and do their work.

The governor's office was first informed there was a problem on April 1, when CPS and Texas Rangers said they were planning to raid the polygamist ranch in two days - on a Thursday. The impetus was a call from a 16-year-old pregnant girl - later determined to be a hoax - who reported physical and sexual abuse by her 49-year-old "spiritual husband."

"They went in there not expecting to find 400 children," Ms. Piferrer said. "You can easily see where it went larger than just those two entities - CPS and law enforcement."

Within a day of the raid, more than 100 girls and women had left the compound, but more children kept turning up as log cabins on the ranch were searched. Supplies were called in from the Red Cross, Goodfellow Air Force Base and local shelters. CPS workers' state-issued credit cards were quickly maxed out.

Hundreds in custody

As the weekend passed, more than 400 children were in custody. The Governor's Division of Emergency Management had set up a command post, state agencies had pitched in - including even the Forest Service - and hundreds of state workers had been deployed.

Among other details the e-mails reveal:

  • Days after the raid, the governor's office apparently did not have a copy of the "search warrant that the media seems to be reading from," which contained basic information supporting the raid. Plus, an outbreak of chicken pox at the shelter prompts emergency operations chief Jack Colley to write: "Many concerns. This is getting out of hand."
  • The governor's staff prepared for him two pages of "key message points, mostly in preparation for an interview with religious broadcaster Pat Robertson to promote the governor's new book on the Boy Scouts.
  • On April 10, the governor's human service policy director Kristi Jordan reported that "we have reason to believe as a result of interviews that some of the mothers are planning to conduct a 'run.' Their objective would be to hide from law enforcement authorities." Security is beefed up.

Many of the e-mails involve how to separate the mothers, more than 130 of them, who were staying with the children. CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said that it is standard procedure in an abuse case to remove the parents to mitigate their influence.

Picking Midlothian

Initially, the plan was to carry out the separation on Friday, April 11, by putting all the mothers and children on buses headed to a Salvation Army facility in Midlothian because of "security concerns with the separation taking place in San Angelo," Ms. Jordan summarized in an April 8 e-mail.

Ms. Piferrer explained that experts feared that emotional outbursts could turn violent, children could be hurt or alerted fathers could become involved. "There were concerns," Ms. Piferrer said. "We were prepared for that if indeed it came to a difficult situation."

She said that Midlothian offered a better-equipped and more secure location. "The model of emergency management is to hope for the best and plan for the worst," she said.

The women and children were not to be told until they were on the buses that all but nursing mothers would be separated into different living quarters from the children.

"Salvation Army indicated it would not allow the conflict associated with separation to occur in its facility, which is why the separation would occur at a secure location prior to entering the Salvation Army grounds," Ms. Jordan wrote.

The judge in charge of custody of the children eventually rejected the transfer. Instead, the separation occurred on April 14, without incident. But the e-mails show that field officers reported back to the governor's office virtually minute by minute on how it proceeded.

Willie Jessop, a leader of the Eldorado sect, said it was preposterous that women in the shelters were plotting an escape or that some mothers were trying to thwart the investigation.

"We never, never did anything other than to comply and to endure what they put us through," Mr. Jessop said. "There was never any type of inside escape plan. That would just never happen."

He expressed outrage that the governor's office was trying to move the mothers and children and separate them en route, outside of public view.

"When is the public going to hold this administration accountable for treating us worse than you would a dog?" he asked.

Staff writer Emily Ramshaw contributed to this report.

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