Love, not abuse, is what binds families living on a Texas religious sect’s compound where hundreds of children were taken into the custody of child welfare officials last week, according to sect members angry over the unprecedented action.
“Everything that involves what we do with our children is through love,” a woman identified only as Monica told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Wednesday from Eldorado, Texas. “We love them and they love us. How could they love us if we abuse them? They love us, and we love them.”
Wearing a floor-length dress with full sleeves and a high collar of the type a 19th-century pioneer would be familiar with, Monica’s eyes welled up behind wire-rimmed glasses, but her voice was soft and her diction precise as she talked about being separated from her five children in the raid.
With her was another mother, Rachel, whose four children are also among the more than 400 girls being held by child welfare officials pending court hearings scheduled to begin on Thursday. Another woman who was described as a baby sitter was with them, along with Rod Parker, a lawyer and spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints sect to which the women belong.
Parker maintained that the state overstepped its bounds in removing hundreds of children in response to a telephone call alleging the forced marriage and sexual abuse of one 16-year-old girl, who has yet to be identified.
“I think that they’ve vastly overreached in terms of removing children from an environment,” Parker told Vieira. “I also think that the basis on which they moved in here and the way that it was done was completely inappropriate. I don’t see any evidence that could justify the wholesale removal of hundreds of children from what is in essence a community. They didn’t do this on a family-by-family basis.”
Parker and the women denied allegations by former church members that girls as young as 13 and 14 are forced into plural marriages with men who might be 40 years older than they. Vieira asked the women if that allegation is true.
“There is no force in our work. It’s all choice,” said Monica. “I have my children, and they mean a lot to me, and I know of no force, nothing like that. I have my children that I love and I want the best for them, and that’s who I live with, and that’s who I work with and that’s what I know about.”
“Everyone is allowed to choose,” said Rachel.
Parker said that it would be a rare exception for a girl to choose to be married. “There is no rule, there is no limit,” he said. “That’s a choice that’s made by the individual family members and the people involved. My information is what you’re talking about — 13-year-olds — that just isn’t true. Most of these people are married as adults.”
He questioned the validity of removing all the girls from the ranch. “They certainly can’t take away all of the children of all of the families on the basis of that kind of an allegation, which is really coming from outside the group, from enemies of the group,” he said.
Monica and Rachel said that their older children were taken from them at the 1,700-acre church compound, called the Yearning for Zion Ranch.
“My oldest daughter was taken very first from a group of girls that were interviewed first and we tried to go with them but they would not let us,” said Rachel, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. “There were many officers and SWAT teams around and buses, and they were very, very frightened and weeping as they got onto the bus and holding our hands and pleading with us to come with them, but they would not let the mothers go with them.”
The raids continued for much of last week, and, Rachel said, she voluntarily brought her younger daughters with her into custody. Girls under the age of 5 have been allowed to remain with their mothers.
“It was a couple of days later that we came with the rest of our smaller children on another bus. But they would not let us have anything to do with our first girls that were taken,” she continued. “They were across a grassy area and all we could do was wave with permission.”
Monica said she has not seen her children in nearly two weeks.
“I need to see them again,” she said. “I need to help them and to be with them, and they need me. I haven’t been allowed to talk to them. They have taken their phones away. I have had no contact. I have not seen them. I don’t know anyone who’s there with them to help them with their needs and help them understand. They need me.”
Child protection officials have said that the procedures used in the raid are standard in cases of abuse. Children who are separated from parents are less likely to be intimidated and more likely to speak truthfully, officials say. Also, when there is an allegation of abuse in a household, all children are initially removed from that home.
But other women from the sect have said that officials tricked them into surrendering custody of their children.
The state will attempt to deal with all of the custody cases at once beginning Thursday. More than 300 lawyers from all over Texas have volunteered their services as advocates, and they and Parker have said the result will be chaos. Parker insisted that each family’s case be dealt with individually.
State officials say that they are hampered in their work because they cannot find birth certificates for many of the children, and many of the women refuse to say whose children belong to whom.
On April 3, armed and armored squads of police from six counties raided the compound in response to a phone call from someone claiming to be a 16-year-old girl who had been forced into marriage and was being physically abused. The girl has yet to be identified, and sect members have suggested that the call was made by an enemy of the sect or a bitter ex-member. They characterize the raid as a violation of their First Amendment right to freely practice their religious beliefs.
Former sect members say that the allegations are true, and that girls are forced into marriages soon after puberty.
Police and Texas Child Protection Services employees removed 416 children during the raid, and 139 women voluntarily left to stay with the children.
Officials allowed 82 women with children under 5 to stay with their children pending marathon court hearings set to begin Thursday. The others were allowed to either return to the compound or take refuge in a women’s shelter. Six women went to the shelter but later returned to their homes.
The head of the sect, Warren Jeffs, is in prison after being convicted last year of forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry an older man. Jeffs founded the 1,700-acre Eldorado complex and hand-picked the church members living there for their devotion to his teachings. They had previously lived in two neighboring towns on either side of the Utah-Arizona border, where large numbers of FLDS members have lived for many years.
People who have left the sect say that the leaders exercise total control of members, who are not allowed access to newspapers, magazines or television news. They have said that physical and sexual abuse of women and children is widespread.
The FLDS members believe in polygamy as originally preached by Joseph Smith, who founded the Mormon religion, and Brigham Young, who led church members to Utah after Smith was killed. Under pressure from the federal government, the Mormons repudiated plural marriage more than 100 years ago, but pockets of believers have continued the practice in a number of locations.
FLDS compounds were raided and large numbers of men, women and children taken into custody in 1935, 1944 and 1953.