After Texas Raid, Officials Work to Help New Orphans

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After an incursion into a fundamentalist community in West Texas that opened cases for more than 400 children, hundreds of lawyers and state workers have been assigned to children now in state custody.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

The west Texas child welfare system is in crisis mode. Attorneys, judges, and child protective services agents are swamped, trying to deal with the 416 children who were taken from the Yearning for Zion Ranch, a polygamous community part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a couple of weeks ago. The mothers of these children have been speaking out since they were separated from their children, like this mother who would not give her name.

Unidentified Woman: You could never dream this could happen in America. Never dreamed. (Crying) Our homes are empty. We have no children.

MARTIN: Hundreds of lawyers and state workers have been assigned to these children, who are now being held in state custody in San Angelo, Texas. Today, a Texas judge will hold a hearing to determine their fate, but even just hearing the holding itself has turned out to be a logistical nightmare. Terri Langford is covering the story for the Houston Chronicle, and she joins me now on the line. Hi, Terri.

Ms. TERRI LANGFORD (Journalist, Houston Chronicle): Hi!

MARTIN: So, describe to us - there have been some conflicting information about where and when the hearing was going to take place this morning, correct?

Ms. LANGFORD: It's been in flux all week.

MARTIN: And have you been now informed? I know you have been kind of waiting for that information. Do you know where it's going to happen?

Ms. LANGFORD: Yeah, it's always going to be - it was always going to happen in the courtroom in the Tom Green Courthouse, but the problem was there was going to be overflow, so there are video hookups in an overflow auditorium so that other people can participate.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that there was some press availability yesterday in Eldorado at the ranch where the children were taken from, at this polygamous ranch of the FLDS. Were you able to get out there for that availability?

Ms. LANGFORD: Yes, I was.

MARTIN: Who were you able to speak with?

Ms. LANGFORD: I spoke to five women, and they were made available. It was pretty chaotic there yesterday because they - all the children's attorneys were out there talking to the mothers, too, getting information right before the hearing. So, they kind of fitted - accommodated all the media who wanted to talk to the women, and in between those interviews.

MARTIN: What was the message that you heard from them?

Ms. LANGFORD: Well, the message is that we were deceived. We were lied to. We don't have our children. Those are primarily the messages that the women, when you ask them about their polygamy lifestyle, or you ask them at what age do girls become married or spiritually married, they - I'm not saying they were evasive, but they kind of look at you like you're asking a question that seems not ridiculous, but sort of inconsequential.

They say that no girl is forced to have sex, but they are lawful people, and anyone who marries someone, it's a choice, but they insist that very young teenage girls are not forced to be married or do marry.

MARTIN: Part of...

Ms. LANGFORD: But they wouldn't give an age.

MARTIN: Part of the challenge of this situation is that ambiguity. The children themselves aren't talking either, right? There have been reports saying that sometimes they give one name, other times they give another, or a different age.

Ms. LANGFORD: Right, there's been CTS, and social workers, and healthcare workers that have said consistently that these children and their mothers have deliberately traded - the mothers have traded children amongst each other to confuse social workers.

The children give different names every time. When we asked the women about that last night, or yesterday afternoon, they said, oh, we never deceived anyone. We were just correcting the information that CTS had.

MARTIN: Now, is Texas law unusual, Terri, for allowing that all these children can be removed without having a specific allegation of abuse for each child?

Ms. LANGFORD: No, in Texas, that's one thing - every state in the last ten to 15 years has concentrated on investigating every abuse allegation, and once an investigator arrives at a home, they look for signs that other children may be at risk. CTS had to determine that there were significant signs. We don't know what those are. We may find those out at the hearing today, that every child was either at risk or had been abused.

MARTIN: Let's talk about some of the logistical challenges in this case. Today in the hearing, the judge is going to decide what's going to happen to these kids, what are the next steps. How is this even going to happen? Are they taking testimony? That would seemingly take hours and hours.

Ms. LANGFORD: Well, yeah, and it may last more than a day. We don't know. There will be people testifying. Chief among them will be Doctor Bruce Perry out of Houston, who followed the Waco children, advised CTS on how to deal with the children at Waco, the 23 who survived, and he is also working as an advisor with them on this case, too.

There will be social workers, there will be evidence, and also there will be some sort of arguments for the other side. They have been very careful on what they say, and we have no idea of what their argument will be. But I think chief among them will be that there is no specific allegation. Their children - they insist no one has been abused at their ranch.

MARTIN: If it were determined that these kids have to go into foster care, Terri, is that even a feasible - is there that capacity?

Ms. LANGFORD: CTS insists there is. CTS has said that they have located homes for every child, and once they get a ruling from the judge, if they get a ruling from the judge today, they will begin placing them in foster care. They intend to keep as much as possible sibling groups together, but it's very hard...

MARTIN: These kids have, like, eight siblings, though, in some cases.

Ms. LANGFORD: Yes, they do, and they're going to - they insist they are going to try.

MARTIN: Others say if all these kids are placed in foster care, that's going to put an immense strain on other cases, other kids who might need to be extracted from dangerous situations won't find a bed.

Ms. LANGFORD: Well, CTS has insisted that there is room in the foster-care system. CTS has always - is always on the lookout for new foster-care parents because so many of them end up adopting and leaving the foster-care program, but they have worked in the last three years to recruit more. They say the spaces are available, and that no child in any other part of the state who is in need of help will be affected.

MARTIN: Terri Langford is covering this story in west Texas for the Houston Chronicle. Hey, Terri, thanks very much for sharing your reporting on this. We appreciate it.

Ms. LANGFORD: No problem.

MARTIN: Thanks.

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