Child-protection workers have no doubts of raid's necessity

Scripps Howard News Service/June 11, 2008

Eldorado, Texas - "We need you now."

With those four words, Angie Voss and her team rolled into action.

They left the Schleicher County Sheriff's Office, drove five minutes on County Road 300, and pulled up to the gate of the YFZ Ranch, home to hundreds of devotees of a polygamist sect.

The women, investigators with Texas' child protective services agency, were dressed for the occasion- long sleeves, long dresses, no jewelry, no makeup. After two hours of negotiation with local law enforcement officers, ranch leader Merril Jessop, an elder in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, had agreed to let Voss and three other Child Protective Services investigators into the 1,700-acre fenced compound.

It wouldn't be that easy.

First, another two hours of negotiation, then a mile-long drive in the West Texas night from the front gate to the center of the community itself, escorted by sect members.

No one spoke.

"It was very quiet in the vehicle," Voss said. "Just contemplating what we were doing and what this investigation was about. We were there to try to help a girl named Sarah."

It was 10 p.m. on April 3. Voss and her investigators would not leave the ranch for 28 hours. The decisions they made while inside its fences would hearten some, infuriate others and unleash a national firestorm of praise and criticism the likes of which San Angelo had never seen before - and may never see again.

"When I saw the table with the coffee pot" inside the schoolhouse where they were to conduct their interviews, said investigator Ruby Gutierrez, "I knew we were in for a long night."

Sixty-three days had passed between Angie Voss' quiet drive down an arrow-straight gravel road and June 6, when she and five other CPS investigators discussed publicly for the first time their thoughts and feelings in the wake of the biggest child-welfare raid in U.S. history -- and its subsequent dismantling at the hands of the state's appellate courts.

In an hour long exclusive interview with the San Angelo Standard-Times, the investigators - of whom Voss is a supervisor - expressed no reservations about their decision that the sect had cultivated a "pervasive pattern and practice" of forced marriages and sexual abuse, and that all 438 children removed from the ranch were at risk of either being abused or being coerced into perpetrating abuse.

They rejected many of the claims brought forward in recent weeks by sect members and their spokespeople, dismissing the notion that the CPS raid was chaotic, or that investigators ripped children from their parents' arms.

They also acknowledged the personal devastation they felt when the Texas Supreme Court ruled late last month that all sect children must be returned to their parents after deciding CPS had failed to prove immediate danger of abuse in the case.

Most importantly, they said, they continue their investigation with the firm belief that the facts of the case will prove as right their request to remove the sect's children.

"We have to back it up with fact," said special investigator Paul Dyer. "That's what we're doing. What you may read in the newspaper or see on the television - that's not necessarily supported by fact. Our investigation is and will be supported by fact."

For Dyer and fellow special investigator Eric Sanders - retired law enforcement officers who work on investigations and often serve as protection for female caseworkers - the wait that night was especially tense.

Jessop would allow only women into the compound. The men, waiting outside the gate with law enforcement and other CPS employees, slept in cars, walked outside and fidgeted while lightning flashed ominously in the black night.

Inside, according to Voss' testimony at an en masse hearing two weeks later and signed affidavits, the investigators ran into resistance - changing birthdates, coached answers, missing or shredded documents.

Distrust had already been high. The sect waited four hours before allowing law enforcement and CPS - which had a court order signed by state 51st District Judge Barbara Walther - through the front gates, negotiating the terms of their entrance.

Even participating in such a negotiation was highly unusual, but the agency felt compelled to be as respectful as possible to the sect's wishes, Gutierrez said.

"That's not anything we're accustomed to doing," she said. "You investigate. You don't negotiate."

Once on the ranch, initial interviews raised concerns about a specific group of girls, and CPS asked Judge Walther to allow them to be brought into emergency temporary custody, Voss said.

As the night progressed, the concerns grew, eventually spreading to all the children living on the ranch.

"It was very incremental," Voss said. "There was not a global, overall decision. As more interviews occurred, the decision was made" to remove all the children.

Gutierrez called "absolutely false" the characterization of the raid by sect mothers and officials as a terrifying, chaotic experience in which law enforcement and CPS workers were rude, even tearing children away from their mothers.

In court, Voss described an incident in which mothers resisted giving up their children until Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran called Jessop on speaker phone, and Jessop told the women to acquiesce to authorities.

"I was surprised they were so cooperative," Voss said. "They came very willingly."

Dyer, who entered the ranch the next morning, agreed.

"It was very calm," he said. "There was no physical contact between state workers (and mothers) or investigators physically removing a child."

Since then, the public tenor of the case has shifted dramatically.

CPS has more often than not endured withering fire from attorneys, civil libertarians and outside observers for removing so many children without a case-by-case consideration.

The backlash began soon after the raid, as it became clearer the phone calls that sparked the investigation were a hoax.

It culminated May 22, when the Third Court of Appeals in Austin upended the case, ruling that Walther overstepped her bounds by giving the state temporary custody and ordered her to return the children to their parents.

On May 29, the Texas Supreme Court agreed.

"I was distressed by it," Sanders said, as his fellow investigators agreed. "Then again, I knew my job was still to protect kids. I knew we had done the right thing."

The now 440 children - two were born in state custody - were returned, but with restrictions that included prohibiting parents from moving them out of state and requiring them to allow unannounced visits by CPS workers within a 12-hour window each day.

The rulings were a shattering interlude in what had already been a trying process, Voss said.

"In my career, this investigation has been and continues to be the most difficult," both in numbers and length, she said. "It was very disheartening and discouraging."

Nevertheless, said investigator Kelly Walker, the investigation continues and remains all consuming.

She and the rest of the investigators could not talk specifically about evidence, citing the pending investigation. Instead, they spoke broadly, expressing their belief that despite the court ruling, the facts ultimately will justify their actions April 3 and beyond.

"These are beautiful, innocent children," Walker said. "We're the only people who could speak for them. We won't quit until they are safe."

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