The seizure of 465 children from a religious sect in Eldorado, Texas has turned into a muddle.
The April 3 raid on a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ranch is believed to have been the result of a hoax by a woman in Colorado. The woman said she was a 16-year-old “Sarah” who was forced into marriage with an older man, had an 8-month-old child, and was pregnant again, at this ranch.
Even after Texas child protection officials realized it was a hoax made by a woman who had a history of making false reports, they seriously botched the custody of the children.
First, it appears officials were shocked by and reacted to, not a potential danger to the children, but to the peculiar religion this Mormon splinter group practices. The group moved to Texas on purpose because, before 2005, Texas allowed girls as young as 14 to marry. Also, bigamy was a misdemeanor then instead of a felony.
Texas legislators changed the law in 2005, however. Officials must only apply those laws for what happens now and in the future, not on what happened before 2005.
Second, “the presumption of innocence was turned on its head,” according to Timothy Lynch in the May 23 National Review. Parents were expected to prove a negative that they committed no crime.
Some of the parents tried to present birth certificates and driver’s licenses to show they violated no marriage law, so they could retrieve their children. Not good enough, child protection officials responded.
Also, if the mothers left the shelter where they were staying to meet with their attorneys before police interviews, officials threatened they would not be able to rejoin their children, Lynch said.
Third, child protection officials acted on the assumption that all 465 children were in danger of being forced into marrying older men, even though some were infants and some were boys. If officials had only taken the 20 teenage girls at the ranch, it wouldn’t have turned into the biggest custody battle in American history.
Fourth, eyewitness reports from social workers at the scene are disturbing. “Crying, begging children were ripped away from their devastated mothers,” Lynch said.
Most of the mothers went to shelters because they were told they would see their children if they did so. This was false.
Texas child protection officials clearly handled this raid badly. This fundamentalist Mormon group has strange beliefs, but it doesn’t justify a presumption of guilt.