Philadelphia - By sending the children in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints back home, Texas has opened up the doors to groups who want religious protection for abusing children, a leading church/state scholar said Saturday.
Marci Hamilton, a professor at Princeton and Yeshiva University's Cardozo Law School, told a conference of the International Cultic Studies Association that the Texas Supreme Court's decision to release the FLDS children from foster care paired with a ruling Friday that tossed out an award for injuries a teenager suffered during an exorcism made a dangerous statement.
"When you add yesterday's decision to FLDS, the state of the Texas has just sent out an engraved invitation to any group who wants to abuse children," Hamilton said. The two decisions make "Texas a very dangerous place for children."
Hamilton, the author of "God vs. the Gavel" and a lawyer who has taken up several cases of child sexual abuse, addressed a packed house at the conference at the University of Pennsylvania. The conference of social workers, sociologists, psychiatrists and scholars is focused on studying cultic groups, and several forums this weekend plan to look at the FLDS situation.
Texas authorities raided the group's Texas ranch on April 3, taking some 460 women and children into state custody based on allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. All were released in June 2, though investigations continue.
At the Philadelphia conference Saturday, Hamilton said placing the children into state custody "put them in really terrible straits."
"They had to eat pizza. They had to learn to ride bicycles," Hamilton said. "They had to live in a universe where abuse is not normal. They saw a window of information they would have otherwise not gotten."
The Texas high court upheld an appellate court's order to release the children back to their parents, saying the removal was "not warranted."
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services had other options to protect the children's safety "short of separating them from their parents and placing them in foster care," the court said in its ruling.
The other decision Hamilton pointed to came down Friday, when the Texas high court overturned a lower-court ruling awarding damages to a 17-year-old girl who was held down and injured during an exorcism.
In an afternoon session, two former polygamist wives spoke to a small group about their experiences in different sects.
Laura Chapman, who left the FLDS sect with her children and is now a social worker in Colorado, raised the point of the 1953 raid in Colorado City, Ariz., when state authorities removed some 263 children. Then-Gov. John Howard Pyle ordered the raid, saying that all children had the rights of other native-born Americans and maturing women shouldn't be given away as chattel.
"Has anything changed? This is Texas," Chapman said.
Like Texas, the children removed during the Short Creek raid were returned to their parents.
Chapman noted that the raid spurned even more fear from polygamous groups of government intervention, and many children -- including herself -- are taught that evil forces are out to destroy God's work.
"They still always say they're being persecuted for polygamy," Chapman said, of reaction to recent crackdowns. "Well, they're being prosecuted for crimes."
FLDS elder and sect spokesman Willie Jessop blasted discussion of the group at a conference focused on cults. He called it stereotyping.
Likewise, Mary Batchelor, co-founder of Principle Voices, an advocacy group for polygamous communities, said some people are unwilling to see the diversity in polygamous groups and only see good or bad.
"We have a legitimate culture and obviously there is variety in how that culture is practiced among the groups," Batchelor said. "Some may view it [polygamy] as a cult. We don't."