Children of Polygamist Sect Now in Foster Care

All of the more than 400 children taken from a polygamist ranch in West Texas are now in foster care. Many are being held in group settings. How are they faring?

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Texas, more than 400 children from a polygamist group are now living in foster care. The state says it has more than 30 underage teens in custody who have already given birth or are currently pregnant. In fact, one young woman gave birth yesterday evening in a Central Texas hospital. That brings the number of children and teens in state custody to 464, and that includes both the mother and her new baby boy.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn joins us now to discuss the current circumstances of these young people and what the future may hold for them.

Wade, before we get to the fate of the rest of the children, let's talk a little bit about the young woman who gave birth yesterday. First, do we know how old she is or anything else about her situation?

WADE GOODWYN: Well, we don't know much, and what do know is in dispute. Texas officials say that this teen mom is under 18 and that she'll stay in foster care with her new baby until a custody hearing the first week of June. A lawyer for the polygamist group says this teenager is actually 18 years old. She's married to 22-year-old FLDS man, and that she already has given birth to a 16-month-old son, and that this child is her second child. And this is the kind of dispute we are going to see over and over again.

Texas is granting any underage moms the right to stay with their children because the state says these mothers are victims of sexual abuse. So when they found this out, some of these girls who originally said they were 20 years old changed their story and said now we're really minors. Texas is saying these mothers are telling the truth now.

Lawyers for FLDS say the teenagers are lying now so they can stay with their children. And Robert, this is not going to be easy to sort out because these children, the vast majority of them, don't have birth certificates because they were born at home with a midwife or an FLDS doctor present.

SIEGEL: FLDS again, we should explain here, is Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints.

GOODWYN: Yes, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about all of these kids, more than 460 of them. What - where has the state sent them?

GOODWYN: All over Texas - Houston, Central Texas. This is one of the major complaints by the polygamist group, that the children are too far away and all over the place. Now, child welfare officials say they've tried to keep the siblings together as much as they can, but that is easier said than done. It's been hard to sort out which children belong to which parents. They tried to do that originally by attaching plastic wrist bracelets to mothers and children, like you do with newborns at the hospital, but the mothers kept removing those bracelets or would rub off the children's names.

As a general rule, the girls are being kept together with their sisters, boys eight and over are being kept together. Two of these boys have turned 18 in the last couple of weeks but decided to remain in state custody rather than go back to the ranch. But as you might expect, this is not a perfect system. I talked to an (unintelligible) for one of the - for a 35-year-old mother. She's got six children in four different foster care facilities, so that's at least one situation that's suboptimal, no question.

SIEGEL: Does a foster care facility in this case mean families or group homes? What are we talking about?

GOODWYN: It's not. They're not families. It's group homes. It's another source of debate. If the state did try to place the kids with families, it would have to really breakup the sibling groups then. Most foster families can't take in five, six, seven children. So instead of doing that, Texas put the kids in larger facilities to keep them together. Some of these places are connected to church dominations. Some of these places are much more like a camp rather than a single-family home, which may be good for now. At least the FLDS children are together in a critical mass. I would guess this provides some of them peace of mind. Initially, they're going to feel like fish out of water and everyone feels safer if you've got a few light-minded folks by your side.

SIEGEL: You said for now. What is supposed to be next for these kids?

GOODWYN: That's a good question. I think the vast majority of them are going to stay in state custody for a few months anyway. Some children could be returned earlier, but with the state claiming that they've got more than 30 underage teens who are pregnant or already given birth, I just don't know how sympathetic the judge is going to be.

SIEGEL: NPR's Wade Goodwyn. Wade, thank you.

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