MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In West Texas, more than 400 children have been taken into state custody. They range from infants to teenagers. The children had been living on a sprawling, 1,700-acre ranch run by a polygamist group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Police searched the property in response to reports that children were being abused.
NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports from San Angelo, Texas.
WADE GOODWYN: The action by the state of Texas to remove 401 children is unprecedented in scope but not in context. In 1993, David Koresh released all of the children from the Branch Davidian complex that were not his own, and Texas child welfare officials went to work. But this scale is many times the size of that intervention. It's as if the state took custody of every female child in block after block of a suburban neighborhood. Nevertheless, Patrick Crimmins with Texas Child Protective Services says the number of children involved is not the most salient factor of the investigation.
Mr. PATRICK CRIMMINS (Spokesman, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services): That investigation determined that there was either abuse or neglect that had already occurred, or abuse or neglect that could be occurring in the particular household that we were investigating. This household happened to be very, very massive and contained not two or three or four children but more than 400.
GOODWYN: The search began after a 16-year-old girl called CPS and complained of abuse. Authorities are searching for evidence that the girl is married to 50-year-old Dale Barlow and had a child by him when she was just 15. The women and children are almost completely isolated from direct contact with people outside the faith. They've been snatched from one unusual lifestyle and dropped into one that's equally bizarre. They're being housed in a former Army barracks inside an historic western fort built in 1867, which is itself surrounded by TV trucks, white dishes pointed at the sky.
I'm standing outside of Fort Concho; 401 children are being kept inside. One whole section of the barracks is full of infants - dozen of infants. People are driving around on golf carts, medical personnel, child protective services, law enforcement.
Mr. CRIMMINS: I think there's no question that there's been a culture shock. They've come out. They're in a shelter, and they're surrounded by law enforcement personnel and trailers and satellite trucks. And they've been taken on buses. So it's got to be a difficult experience for them, and it's been a very tense experience for everyone.
GOODWYN: But in order to remove and take custody of 401 children from different families, the state must have cause. A state judge has granted Child Protective Services temporary custody, which gives the agency 14 days to put together their evidence and go to court. Crimmins says CPS has poured in some of its best investigators.
Mr. CRIMMINS: A CPS caseworker is trying to determine if abuse or neglect has already occurred, if abuse or neglect is likely to occur, and also is the family protective?
GOODWYN: With the state taking every female child from the ranch, it is likely to argue that the parents' polygamist beliefs in and of themselves constitutes jeopardy for underage sexual abuse. Lawyers for the polygamist group filed a motion this weekend, protesting that the search warrant was too broad and too vague, thus unconstitutional. And in a press conference yesterday, things got a little testy as some reporters wanted to know from CPS's Marleigh Meisner what right the state had to take so many children from so many families.
Unidentified Man: But on a massive scale, you're ripping families apart,and you're not explaining to us what is the real reason for it.
Ms. MARLEIGH MEISNER (Spokeswoman, Child Protective Services): I can tell you that as of today, this is the first day that I have an open legal record that I'm able to talk about, and we will have reports filed with the court. It takes a long time to file 401 affidavits in a courtroom. And I can tell you that it was certainly enough that a district judge in the state of Texas determined that these children were at risk, and judges in Texas don't take those accusations lightly.
GOODWYN: Merrill Jessop, a presiding elder of the polygamist group, complained that, quote, "there needs to be a public outcry. The hauling off of women and children matches anything in Russia and Germany." [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Merrill Jessop complained TO THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE that, quote, "there needs to be a public outcry. The hauling off of women and children matches anything in Russia and Germany."]
Today, two members of the polygamist group were arrested out at the ranch, one charged with interfering with the police and the other with destroying evidence.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, San Angelo, Texas.
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