Aftermath of the Texas CPS Raid
By: Houston Criminal Defense Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
In the fall of 2003 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (“FLDS”) arrived in Eldorado, Texas. They purchased a 1700-acre ranch four miles outside of town. They called it the “Yearn for Zion Ranch” (“YFZ”). More members arrived. They constructed a mammoth temple and created their own community. They lived in peace.
While rumors circulated about in nearby Eldorado that the FLDS was a “polygamist cult” with older men taking multiple teenage girls as wives, there was no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing at the ranch. That is, until March 29, 2008 when a deranged African-American woman pretended to be a 16-year-old former FLDS resident twice impregnated by an older man and called a local domestic violence hotline saying she had been sexually and physically abused at the YFZ ranch. Women at the crisis center took this egregious false report to law enforcement, including the Texas Rangers, and the fires of one of the largest and most costly religious witch-hunts in Texas history were lit. There was no controlling the massive law enforcement and child protective services stampede that ensued.
Five days after the Rosita Swinton false report to the domestic violence hotline, the Texas Rangers and local law enforcement agencies, supported by Texas Child Protective Services (“CPS”), launched a massive, military-style raid on the YFZ compound. They threatened and generally terrorized the approximately 700 people living at the ranch, including more than 400 children. They conducted searches of all the buildings on the compound, including the temple. They seized documents and arrested people—all without any reasonable probable cause.
But worst of all, CPS seized and removed 439 FLDS children from the lawful custody of their parents. CPS had no legitimate cause, and certainly no legal authority, to sever the cherished child-parent relationship. While a local judge, apparently influenced by local politics and a mindset similar to CPS workers, held that the removal of the children was legal, she was quickly reversed by a state appeals court that pointed out just how flagrantly she had violated Texas family law.
But the damage had been done. Children had been forced into foster homes and introduced to a lifestyle that violated every religious and personal value instilled in them by their parents. Parents themselves, driven by the unbreakable bonds of parental love, were forced to leave the YFZ ranch where they had lived lawful lives in quiet peace and worship of God in order to see their children. Estimates are that the State of Texas wasted $14 million to destroy these lives and produce only a handful of insignificant indictments that have yet to see a trial.
In a March 23, 2009 cover story, PEOPLE Magazine reported on the anniversary of what has become the “shame of Texas.” The magazine said some 200 FLDS children have been reunited with their families and are back at the YFZ ranch. Nancy Barlow is the mother of one of the children seized and returned. Little Gloria had always made “purring sound” when she is happy, according to mom Nancy. But those purring sounds of happiness are now frequently interrupted with inexplicable screams of terror.
“After the raid they kept her separate from our other children,” Nancy Barlow told PEOPLE. “So she learned how to scream.”
The children not only learned how to scream but had permissive social values imposed on them by foster parents: skimpy clothes that exposed too much flesh for pre-teen and teenage children; television programs that serve up violence and sex as part of the normal social diet; and sporting competition that places individual recognition over team success.
Gloria’s father, Bob Barlow, told PEOPLE: “It’s been like a natural disaster. Like a hurricane hit us.”
Zavenda Jessup lost all four of her children, ages four to ten, in the raid. “They [foster parents] wanted to show them whatever they thought they were missing,” she told PEOPLE about the social exposure inflicted upon her children. “They came back with Dr. Seuss memorized. We’re seeing sides of them we’ve never seen before.”.
Zavenda added that her youngest child has started asking for her bottle again and the boys “have a lot more conflicts. They are way more insecure, and it’s more of an effort to get them to bed.”
Nancy Barlow, who also had four children taken from her in the raid, agreed with Zavenda about the cultural damage done to the children. “They dressed them in shorts!” she told PEOPLE. “My children know better than to have their arms and legs shown. [They] had so many toys thrown at them. Toys tend to teach children to be selfish. We make it real and useful to them. Gloria loves to do the dishes. If you cultivate that, then they’re happy.”
Despite the massive emotional damage the April 3, 2008 inflicted upon the FLDS community, which, as a whole, had not done one single thing to harm the interests of the State of Texas or any of its residents, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Serves, through its spokesman Patrick Crimmins, told PEOPLE the State had done the “right thing.” “We had what we thought was a credible allegation of abuse,” he said. “And when we got there, we realized we needed to do a complete investigation.”
That “investigation” led authorities to believe some 12 children between ages of 12 and 15 had been victims of sexual abuse while another 262 were declared “subject to neglect” because their parents kept them in situations of “potential” sexual abuse. This $14 million dollar investigation produced only 12 indictments on charges ranging from child sexual abuse to conducting unauthorized marriages. As we said, not a single case has faced a trial on the merits.
PEOPLE reported that CPS officials have cleared all but two of the 439 children to be returned to the YFZ ranch. Why? “The risk has been negated,” Darrell Azar, a CPS official, told PEOPLE. Translated from government-speak, that means the State of Texas never really had a case against the FLDS community from the beginning.
It is tragically ironical that while PEOPLE reported on the FLDS children being happily reunited with their parents, the magazine carried yet another story about young people who have “aged out” of foster care or fled troubled families. They are now struggling to survive on the streets, moving from one shelter or program to another. Most are future residents of the nation’s prison system where they will be traumatized even more by violence, sexual abuse and drugs.
These “lost children” are reflections of what would have become of FLDS children had Texas law enforcement and CPS officials had their way by keeping them in “foster care.” The State of Texas cannot even protect the children it has in its own custody. In 2007 there was a massive scandal about children being physically and sexually abused by the staff of state juvenile facilities. More recently reports have surfaced that staff at one of these facilities were forcing juvenile inmates to engage in “gladiator-styled” fights for the staff’s amusement.
The children at YFZ ranch may be compelled to go to bed early, perform clean up chores around the ranch, attend school and complete homework, and wear unbecoming garb but they most likely not grow up to be drug addicts, career criminals, gang-bangers, prostitutes, or homeless. In many respects, the YFZ ranch is the safest, cleanest, and most law-abiding community in the State of Texas. This community does not need the death penalty, three-strikes life sentences, and a 160,000 prison cages to keep it safe.
Perhaps the FLDS children will recover—they will if the State of Texas will just leave them be and focus its law enforcement energies on keeping the violent drug cartel gangs south of the border.
By: Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair