THE BLOG
05/30/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Texas Appellate Court Rules Against State's Seizure of the FLDS Children

From the opinion, which is a sharp and detailed rebuke of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (emphasis and some paragraph breaks added):

Removing children from their homes and parents on an emergency basis before fully litigating the issue of whether the parents should continue to have custody of the children is an extreme measure. It is, unfortunately, sometimes necessary for the protection of the children involved. However, it is a step that the legislature has provided may be taken only when the circumstances indicate a danger to the physical health and welfare of the children and the need for protection of the children is so urgent that immediate removal of the children from the home is necessary. [Tex. Fam. Code. Ann. § 262.201.]

In this case, the Department relied on the following evidence with respect to the children token into custody from the Yearning For Zion ranch to satisfy the requirements of section 262.201:
  • Interviews with investigators revealed a pattern of girls reporting that "there was no age too young for girls to be married";
  • Twenty females living at the ranch had become pregnant between the ages of thirteen and seventeen;
  • Five of the twenty females identified as having become pregnant between the ages of thirteen and seventeen are alleged to be minors, the other fifteen are now adults; [footnote: One woman is alleged to have become pregnant at the age of thirteen. She is now twenty-two years old.]
  • Of the five minors who became pregnant, four are seventeen and one is sixteen, and all five are alleged to have become pregnant at the age of fifteen or sixteen;
  • The Department's lead investigator was of the opinion that due to the "pervasive belief system" of the FLDS, the male children are groomed to be perpetrators of sexual abuse and the girls are raised to be victims of sexual abuse;
  • All 468 children were removed from the ranch under the theory that the ranch community was "essentially one household comprised of extended family subgroups" with a single, common belief system and there was reason to believe that a child had been sexually abused in the ranch "household"; and
  • Department witnesses expressed the opinion that there is a "pervasive belief system" among the residents or the ranch that it is acceptable for girls to marry, engage in sex, and bear children as soon as they reach puberty, and that this "pervasive belief system" poses a danger to the children.
In addition, the record demonstrates the following facts, which are undisputed by the Department:
  • The only danger to the male children or the female children who had not reached puberty identified by the Department was the Department's assertion that the "pervasive belief system" of the FLDS community groomed the males to be perpetrators of sexual abuse later in life and taught the girls to submit to sexual abuse after reaching puberty;
  • There was no evidence that the male children, or the female children who had not reached puberty, were victims of sexual or other physical abuse or in danger of being victims of sexual or other physical abuse;
  • While there was evidence that twenty females had become pregnant between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, there was no evidence regarding the marital status of these girls when they became pregnant or the circumstances under which they became pregnant other than the general allegation that the girls were living in an FLDS community with a belief system that condoned underage marriage and sex; [footnote: Under Texas law, it is not sexual assault to have consensual sexual intercourse with a minor spouse t0 whom one is legally married. Texas law allows minors to marry--as young as age sixteen with parental consent and younger than sixteen if pursuant to court order. A person may not be legally married to more than one person.]
  • There was no evidence that any of the female children other than the five identified as having become pregnant between the ages of fifteen and seventeen were victims or potential victims of sexual or other physical abuse;
  • With the exception of the five female children identified as having become pregnant between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, there was no evidence of any physical abuse or harm to any other child;
  • The Relators have identified their children among the 468 taken into custody by the Department, and none of the Relators' children are among the live the Department has identified as being pregnant minors; and
  • The Department conceded at the hearing that teenage pregnancy, by itself, is not a reason to remove children from their home and parents, but took the position that immediate removal was necessary in this case because "there is a mindset that even the young girls report that they will marry at whatever age, and that it's the highest blessing they can have to have children."

The Department argues that the fact that there are five minor females living in the ranch community who became pregnant at ages fifteen and sixteen together with the FLDS belief system condoning underage marriage and pregnancy indicates that there is a danger to all of the children that warrants their immediate removal from their homes and parents, and that the need for protection of the children is urgent. [Footnote: The Department's position was stated succinctly by its lead investigator at the hearing. In response to an inquiry as to why the infants needed to be removed from their mothers, the investigator responded, "[W]hat I have found is that they're living under an umbrella of belief that having children at a young age is a blessing therefore any child in that environment would not be safe."] The Department also argues that the "household" to which the children would be returned includes persons who have sexually abused another child, because the entire Yearning For Zion ranch community is a "household." ...

The Department did not present any evidence of danger to the physical health or safety of any male children or any female children who had not reached puberty. Nor did the Department offer any evidence that any of Relators' pubescent female children were in physical danger other than that those children live at the ranch among a group of people who have a "pervasive system of belief" that condones polygamous marriage and underage females having children. [Footnote: The Department's witnesses conceded that there are differences of opinion among the FLDS community as to what is an appropriate age to marry, how many spouses to have, and when to start having children--much as there are differences of opinion regarding the details of religious doctrine among other religious groups.]

The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the Department's witnesses, by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger. It is the imposition of certain alleged tenets of that system on specific individuals that may put them in physical danger. The Department failed to offer any evidence that any of the pubescent female children of the Relators were in such physical danger. The record is silent as to whether the Relators or anyone in their households are likely to subject their pubescent female children to underage marriage or sex. The record is also silent as to how many of Relators' children are pubescent females and whether there is any risk to them other than that they live in a community where there is a "pervasive belief system" that condones marriage and child" rearing as soon as females reach puberty.

The Department also failed to establish that the need for protection of the Relators' children was urgent and required immediate removal of the children. As previously noted, none of the identified minors who are or have been pregnant are children of Relators. There is no evidence that any of the five pregnant minors live in the same household as the Relators' children. [Footnote: The notion that the entire ranch community constitutes a "household" as contemplated by section 262.201 and justifies removing all children from the ranch community if there even is one incident of suspected child sexual abuse is contrary to the evidence. The Department's witnesses acknowledged that the ranch community was divided into separate family groups and separate households. While there was evidence that the living arrangements on the ranch are more communal than most typical neighborhoods, the evidence was not legally or factually sufficient to support a theory that the entire ranch community was a "household" under section 262.201.]

There is no evidence that Relators have allowed or are going to allow any of their minor female children to be subjected to any sexual or physical abuse. There is simply no evidence specific to Relators' children at all except that they exist, they were taken into custody at the Yearning For Zion ranch, and they are living with people who share a "pervasive belief system" that condones underage marriage and underage pregnancy.

Even if one views the FLDS belief system as creating a danger of sexual abuse by grooming boys to be perpetrators of sexual abuse and raising girls to be victims of sexual abuse as the Department contends, there is no evidence that this danger is "immediate" or "urgent" as contemplated by section 262.201 with respect to every child in the community. [Footnote, slightly moved: The simple fact, conceded by the Department, that not all FLDS families are polygamous or allow their female children to marry as minors demonstrates the danger of removing children from their homes based on the broad-brush ascription of every aspect of a belief system to every person living among followers of the belief system or professing to follow the belief system.] ... Evidence that children raised in this particular environment may someday have their physical health and safety threatened is no evidence that the danger is imminent enough to warrant invoking the extreme measure of immediate removal prior to full litigation of the issue as required by section 262.201.

Finally, there was no evidence that the Department made reasonable efforts to eliminate or prevent the removal of any of Relators' children [as required under §262.201]. The evidence is that the Department went to the Yearning For Zion ranch to investigate a distress call from a sixteen year-old girl. [Footnote: The authenticity of this call is in doubt. Department investigators did not locate the caller on the ranch.] After interviewing a number of children, they concluded that there were five minors who were or had been pregnant and that the belief system of the community allowed minor females to marry and bear children.

They then removed all of the children in the community (including infants) from their homes and ultimately separated the children from their parents. This record does not reflect any reasonable effort on the part of the Department to ascertain if some measure short of removal and/or separation from parents would have eliminated the risk the Department perceived with respect to any of the children of Relators....