More than a month since their children were taken into custody by the state of Texas in a raid on an FLDS compound in Eldorado, Texas, two sets of parents and a representative for the families alleged that the state has deliberately scattered and isolated the children.
James and Nancy Dockstader described living mostly in the covered bed of their truck, traveling to the far corners of Texas in hope of seeing their five children. Another FLDS couple, Rulon and Lorene Keate, said they drive from one end of the huge state to another for three days at a time, trying to see their six children. And even when there are visits, they said, the men who say they are the children’s fathers are not allowed to visit them at all.
“It is truly a nightmare. We just are empty,” James Dockstader told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira in an interview Monday in New York. “We need our children returned. Life is nothing without them.”
“I’ve seen my two daughters once. I haven’t seen my sons,” said Nancy Dockstader. “It’s been 37 days since I’ve seen my sons. It’s because they don’t have a caseworker — they say if they don’t have a caseworker, we can’t see them.”
Six children, three sites
The Keates have six children aged 1 to 9 in custody. Lorene Keate told Vieira that two are in San Antonio in west Texas, three are in Liverpool, near Houston in east Texas, and one is near Amarillo, in the Texas panhandle at the northern end of the state.
“I tell them that I love them. The first time that I went to see them, they thought I was coming to take them home. When I left them, it was really hard on them,” she said as she fought back tears.
After police and Texas Child Protection Services (CPS) personnel began a six-day raid of the Yearning for Zion ranch on April 3, authorities said they would make every effort to keep sibling groups together when they were put in foster care pending investigations and court proceedings. A CPS spokesman said that because sibling groups among the more than 450 children taken into protective custody are so large, it is not possible to keep all groups together.
Willie Jessop, a spokesman for families from the ranch, said the state has instead purposely scattered children as widely as possible. “They have everyone split up from one end of Texas to another,” he told Vieira. “They have purposely put these parents where they have to be on the road 24/7 to see their children.”
The Dockstaders and Keates confirm that, saying they have drives as long as 900 miles to get from one group of their children to another. The families also say they have been told that if they return to the YFZ ranch, they will not be allowed to see their children at all.
The 1,700-acre compound was founded by Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned head of the sect, which follows the original teachings of Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism. Most of the families on the ranch came from FLDS communities that straddle the Utah-Arizona border. The FLDS believe that a man must have at least three wives to reach the highest level of heaven. Former members and state investigators say the sect forces girls as young as 14 to marry men many years older. Jeffs is in prison after being convicted of forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her first cousin.
The Mormon church disavowed polygamy in 1890 under heavy pressure from the federal government, and has declared the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints sects that have sprung up since to be apostates who are excommunicated from the Mormon church.
The Dockstaders and Keates both say that they are monogamous couples who are opposed to any abuse of children. Like other sect members who have appeared on TODAY and other news shows, they say they have never witnessed any abuse on the ranch and would report it if they did.
State officials say that 31 of 53 girls between the ages of 14 and 17 who were taken into custody are either pregnant or have given birth. Attorneys for the sect say that many of the young mothers are actually 18, and in any event are only practicing their faith.
“We’re not aware of any abuse,” said Rulon Keate. “We don’t know what they’re talking about. But here we are. They have our children in state custody today.”
The Dockstaders have a daughter who has a 2-year-old daughter of her own. They say their daughter is 23; CPS officials say she is 16. Nancy Dockstader said she has provided officials with a birth certificate and that her daughter has a valid Texas driver’s license showing that she is 23, but state officials have said they don’t believe her.
“The state has been very selective about what they want to believe and not believe,” Jessop claimed. “So if you can have a 29-year-old accused of being a 15-year-old, and you can’t produce any government ID to correct it, then they want to believe what they want to believe without letting the truth of the matter stand on its own.”
While the charges and countercharges continue to fly back and forth, the parents continue to circumnavigate Texas, trying to regain custody of their children.
Said Rulon Keate: “All we want is our children back.”
In a second segment on TODAY, the Dockstaders and Keates responded to viewer e-mails as well as additional questions from TODAY’s Ann Curry.
E-mail question from “Nancy”:
If/when your children are returned to you, will you then return to the ranch, or will you make a new life in society for fear that at any time they may take the children again?
“That’s a hard question to answer. The ranch is a different place now. I think the ranch may be scary to the children because of the guns they brought in, the tanks. I just don’t know how the children will feel ... how they were taken away.”
“I think that’s the strategy of the state, to force everyone to where they don’t have an option to go back to the ranch. The way they’re taking them away without any kind of paperwork, it seems there’s a strategic plan to keep people from going back.”
E-mail question from “Dene”:
Every time someone from your community is questioned whether or not you feel it is abuse to have a teenage girl pregnant or married, you all dance around the question. If you all have nothing to hide, why not give a straightforward answer?
“That doesn’t apply to us. We have little boys; we have boys from 9 to 1 year.” (The Keates also have one young daughter, also in state custody, but Keate did not address that.)
“That’s a broad question and you’re trying to make someone answer the question it doesn’t apply to.”
E-mail question from “Sandra”:
What do you consider abuse?
“Abuse is when somebody’s in a situation that they’re forced or coerced into — something that they don’t have control of.”
“If someone is having marital relations under the age of 18, is that abuse?”
“There’s a lot of factors that go with that, like parental consent. I think the laws allow for that.”
E-mail question from “Julie”:
If you knew or suspected abuse on the ranch, would you have done anything to stop it?
“Absolutely. We wouldn’t allow it in any way.”
“There is this idea that people aren’t free to say and do what they want.”
“I just have to chuckle at that, because we’re the freest people on earth — at the ranch before the government came in. Everybody’s free to go and come as they please. We chose the ranch because we felt like it would be a good place for our children.”