ELDORADO, TX — An anonymous hoax phone call alleging child abuse prompted a massive show of force upon a small religious community. SWAT teams armed with automatic weapons, helicopters, and an armored personnel carrier, a paramilitary police force descended upon the the peaceful, cooperative community, prepared to treat everyone as guilty until proven innocent. What happened next was the largest child custody action in Texas state history, resulting in the forceful separation of over 400 children from their families.
The story revolves around a community of religious people that lived together cooperatively on a 1,700 acre property in Eldorado, Texas. Hundreds of close-knit, hard working members lived simple lives cultivating their own crops, raising their own animals, educating their own children, and minding their own business. The place was called the Yearning For Zion (YFZ) ranch, and was established it in 2005 after fleeing religious persecution in Utah and Arizona.
Worship was the center of everyone’s life in the community. They shared a common faith in the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), which is a particular sect of Mormonism. They constructed a large, white temple as a worship center. The community gathered twice a day to pray together.
The members of the Yearning For Zion ranch lived modestly and without many of the distractions of the outside world. The beliefs and customs of the community fell well outside of the norms of the culture at large. The women wore long dresses that extended all the way to the ground; exemplifying their cultural modesty. The ranch leader was a man named Warren Jeffs, who served as the president of the FLDS movement and was viewed as a modern-day prophet.
The sect was perhaps most known for its controversial marriage customs. The FLDS practices polygny, a practice in which the men are allowed to have multiple wives. Marriages were arranged by the church leader, and often took place at a young age. The preceding FLDS president, Rulon Jeffs (Warren’s father), had approximately “20 wives and 60 children” at the time of his death.
Despite their non-mainstream practices, the ranch community lived peacefully in isolation.
The community came to a grinding halt in April 2008, when Texas authorities received a phone call from a girl who identified herself as “Sarah,” claimed to be 16 years old, and said that she “lived at the ranch, was pregnant and was being abused by her 50-year-old husband.” (No female matching this description was ever found.)
With little more than an anonymous call, the Schleicher County Sheriff’s Department and the Texas Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS) were granted a warrant “to search anywhere and everywhere in order to find the girl and put her in touch with CPS.”
On April 3, 2008, police surrounded the community with dozens of heavily armed police officers, armored vehicles, and social workers ready to confiscate as many children as possible. Helicopters whirred overhead as police snipers perched themselves on high ground around the ranch.
The exact number of officers involved in the raid was never disclosed, but DFPS listed Texas state troopers, non-uniformed investigators, Texas Rangers, deputies from four different county sheriff departments, the San Angelo police department and the Texas Game Warden.
The tremendous rollout of militarized police resembled the siege on the Branch Davidians’ Mount Carmel Center 15 years earlier in Waco, Texas. No explanations were given as to why the police response was so heavy-handed. No threats had been made, nor had any physical resistance been offered.
SWAT teams moved in using an Armored Personnel Carrier. The vehicle had been granted to the Midland Sheriff’s Department for domestic use from the Department of Defense.
Sheriff David Doran recalled, “We asked to see the girl who called for help, but they wouldn’t produce her.” Police proceeded to perform blanket searches of everyone and everything on the 1,700 acre ranch. Hundreds of homes and buildings were searched — nothing was off limits. One warrant seemingly invalidated the privacy rights of the entire community.
Texas Witch Hunt
The search soon morphed into a witch hunt on the entire community. Every adult was being looked at as a child abuser, and every child was being portrayed as a victim. As the DFPS spokesman, Greg Cunningham, put it, “It was the investigation afterward that led us to believe there was abuse happening in widespread fashion at the compound.”
Judge Barbara Walther issued a superseding warrant “expanding the search to include looking for evidence of other crimes.” Deseret News points out that each of the two affidavits contains the original claims of the CPS as well as the phone calls from “S.J.” (Sarah) to the San Angelo family crisis shelter.
Sheriff Doran and CPS supervisor Angie Voss began looking for anything they could term “evidence of other crimes.” Personal documents were searched. Safes were cracked. Children were interrogated without parental consent, despite having no direct link to the original complaint. Women and children were escorted to the schoolhouse for questioning, and by all accounts were peaceful, respectful, and cooperative.
Even CPS supervisor Angie Voss described being overwhelmed by the police presence. In her words, “It was a very scary environment — intimidating. I was afraid. I saw men all over. It felt like the schoolhouse was surrounded. It was a fearful kind of environment.”
“I heard a report that a tank was coming on the property. Things were getting more scary [sic] to me. It was a situation of a very huge magnitude with so many law enforcement officers around,” she said. “The case workers wanted to interview the children in an environment that didn’t seem “so scary and dangerous.”
After six hours questioning the women and children, Voss said the a decision was made to remove some of the children from the ranch. Between the first and second days of the raid the decision to move more of the children was made in part due to the unexpectedly large number of children at the ranch. Voss also told the Deseret News that, “the situation at the ranch was becoming really tense.”
The source of the consternation was that a few of the men had taken wives in their early teens — “spiritual wives” — that were not intended to be recognized by Texas law. Since Mr. Jeffs was one of those suspected of having a very young wife, a horrifying and precedent-setting decision was made to confiscate every single child from the entire community.
‘Your children are ours.’
CPS argued that the YFZ ranch was one single property, and their emergency custody powers could be extended across every child that lived on that property. Hundreds of families were to be broken apart because the government didn’t approve of their unsanctioned religious customs.
FLDS spokesman, Rod Parker described how the officers appeared in full SWAT gear, adding, “They went onto the ranch under one phone call that was a pretext… It seems obvious to me they came prepared to do much more than take one girl out of there.”
The roundup was chilling. According to the women, police officers and CPS entered the room where the women had been cordoned off and gave them an ultimatum: “You are to leave this building. Your children are with us. You have a choice. You can go to a women’s violence shelter or go home to the ranch.” And then, according to a woman named Marie, the authorities left them with one final threat: “They read a court order and said, ‘Your children are ours.’”
Children were collected by the hundred and forced onto buses. The group was trucked off to relocation centers in San Angelo, Texas. Authorities took roughly 220 women and over 400 children away from their homes. (The number of children seized has varied in media reports from 437 to 468.)
Authorities did not even allow fathers to say goodbye to their children as they were hauled away.
“They first got under the gate under false pretenses,” said 33-year-old father named Isaac to Deseret News. “I haven’t slept, not hardly at all since [the raid]. It was hard to watch them haul my family off.”
“They had police cars box in the whole property,” Isaac continued. “My son was on the bus, crying and crying, and I was waving at him. A CPS worker came up and told me, ‘You’re not helping. They were fine until you came out.’ I asked him if he ever had his family torn away from him and he wouldn’t answer.”
“They said they were going to question them at another place and bring them back,” he said. “They did not (bring them back). It was all done under false pretenses.”
Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson Tela Mange declared the raid a success: “Everyone was really pleased with how well things went,” she said. “There were no shots fired, no incidents.”
Women present at the YFZ ranch during the raid who spoke to the Deseret News described the raid as, “a carefully orchestrated plan to force dozens of Fundamentalist LDS Church mothers into leaving their children behind in state care.”
The FLDS children and women were taken away to makeshift shelters up to 50 miles away, including the San Angelo Coliseum, Fort Concho, and the county fairgrounds. In each case, the conditions were squalid. The bus rides were filled with tears and anxiety.
Detainees were put into makeshift shelters with no running water, no indoor toilets, and no air conditioning. The rooms were dimly lit and they slept on cots in crowded, stuffy, windowless rooms. There was so much sorrow amongst the group that the floors reportedly became “slick with tears.”
One FLDS mother named Marie recalled the ordeal of being bussed from the YFZ ranch to a pair of overcrowded, cramped shelters and then, finally, to the “Cattle Arena” annex of the San Angelo Coliseum. She told the paper that once the mothers and children were brought to the coliseum, CPS separated them from each other by lying to them. “They told the children that the mothers were needed in another room, that we were going to get some information,” Marie said. “The children didn’t want us to go. They wanted to be with us.”
The mothers that were “permitted” to stay with the children were frequently yelled at and “continually reminded them that the women were guests only and could be made to leave if they did not cooperate.”
CPS could interrogate or examine the children at any time and the mothers were powerless to stop it. Even medical procedures such as physical exams and X-rays were completely within the discretion of CPS.
The physical examinations were traumatic for FLDS children, who are raised with extreme modesty. “Some of the children have come out crying and screaming,” explained a mother named Kathleen. “They were touching their bodies in inappropriate ways.”
Nights in the relocation centers were restless and emotional for the children. There was no privacy or quiet, so any crying child would disturb the entire group. Mothers reported that it took hours to calm the children down, and that only a few hours of sleep could be reasonably expected.
“Please come and sleep on my bed so they won’t take me,” implored the children to a mother named Dorothy. “I say, ‘No, I will sleep by the door so I can watch all of you.’”
Life in the relocation centers was rigidly controlled by CPS agents. The children were not even allowed to pass notes, according to Deseret News. Unsupervised prayers were not permitted, either. The sacred twice-daily worship sessions were required to be “monitored” by CPS agents, a decision backed by Judge Walther.
The control techniques were enforced to a level that even appalled other (non-CPS) social workers. There were numerous reports of widespread abuse and mistreatment at the hands of CPS, coming from the very same contractors that CPS had invited into the shelter.
“Some of these CPS workers were bent on humiliating and just being hateful,” said John Kight, chairman of the organization that provided mental health workers to the mothers and children taken. “They get their minds made up that they have unlimited power to do what they want and it’s not right.”
The accounts of the mental health workers indicate that CPS lied to parents, threatened them, kept them awake at night, and herded them around “like cattle.” According to one report, CPS “threatened the mothers with never seeing their children again if they did not cooperate, and ignored requests for anything.”
“At least five mothers reported that at night CPS circled their beds, held flashlights in their faces and then would sit inches away from them as they tried to sleep,” one whistleblower stated. “Mothers reported they were scared CPS would take their children during the night, thus leaving them and their children exhausted.”
Examiners remarked how healthy and well cared for the children were. One reported, “The children laughed easily and gave eye contact. They had none of the traditional withdrawal common in abused children.”
Another report stated that a mother was forced onto a bus and sent away, even though her her child was hospitalized with a high fever and the physician had personally requested her presence. “This event haunts me still,” said a whistleblower, “and I cannot imagine such a heartless act.”
Things went this way for over 2 weeks, and ultimately all of the women were forced to leave their children and go back to the ranch. Even mothers who were still breastfeeding their infants were turned away. Finally, the children were placed into foster homes — sometimes hundreds of miles away — but not before each child’s DNA was forcibly confiscated, along with fingerprints and mugshots.
DFPS made the decision to inject the children with vaccines, fully knowing that most fundamentalists avoided them and would not voluntarily make that choice. Parents, intimidated about being uncooperative with CPS, were left in no position to resist, despite concerns about documented side effects.
Incidentally, as a mental health worker reported, “The children arrived healthy and happy and left sick and crying.”
“Sarah” was a Hoax
“Sarah,” the anonymous caller who had prompted this fiasco, was not found within the compound, nor was she ever been positively identified as having ever resided at the ranch. No one had ever heard of her. The leaders of the YFZ ranch in Eldorado could not have “produced” her upon request if they had wanted to, because she never existed.
Ranch residents commonly stated that the person responsible for the phone call did so fraudulently and only to give the State of Texas an excuse to gain initial entry into the community.
The call was ultimately determined to be a hoax. “Sarah” was not a 16-year-old child-bride, as she claimed. She did not even live in Texas. Her name is Rozita Swinton of Colorado Springs, Colorado, and she apparently was no stranger to phoning hoaxes in to the police, according to the Deseret News. What remains unknown, however, is just when the law enforcement and CPS authorities became aware of the fraud.
The realization that “Sarah” was in fact a grown-up serial hoaxer should have invalidated any “evidence” gained under the false pretenses established to search the YFZ ranch. Even the 51st District Attorney First Assistant Allison Palmer — who used those phone calls as probable cause to seek the original warrants granted by Judge Walther — voiced doubt over the legality of the original search warrant that granted access to the YFZ ranch. As Palmer stated, “some events have shaken our belief and confidence in that probable cause.”
CPS defended the operation, however. “There were many Sarahs. Just because perhaps someone else placed that phone call doesn’t change our involvement,” CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner arrogantly downplayed. “What we feel we found was systematic abuse of children.”
The weight placed on anonymous tips has created what Justice Antonin Scalia called “a freedom-destroying cocktail.” In Navarette v. California, the Supreme Court ruled that an anonymous 9-1-1 call may be used as reasonable suspicion to stop someone and investigate them for further crimes. Although this decision came years later, it is precisely what happened at the YFZ ranch. These precedents seem to place us all at risk of having our lives invaded in situations where a “malevolent 9-1-1 caller… need fear no consequences, even if 9-1-1 knows his identity,” as Scalia wrote.
This outcome is apparent in Greg Cunningham’s explanation for the forcible removal of several hundred children from their mothers without a trial and without being able to face their accuser: “I think some people have really focused on that (Sarah),” said Cunningham, “but the reality is that her phone call is the reason we went out there, but it was not the reason for the removals. The removals happened based on what we saw out there.”
What they saw, however, is the precisely what is at the center of the conflict between agents of state authority and the parental rights of the United States citizens. These children were stolen by the state in order to “protect” them from being exposed to the religious teachings of their parents.
No Protection From The Court
The massive two-day court hearing at which Judge Barbara Walther upheld the state’s massive child confiscation was marred by a lack of requisite due process; some of the parents did not even receive notice of the legal proceedings, let alone have a chance to tell their side of the story.
“They had no meaningful way to participate, and no evidence was presented against them,” said attorney Kevin Dietz, who represented 45 FLDS families.
Judge Walther seemingly went out of her way to relieve the Texas authorities of the responsibility to produce the mysterious “Sarah,” whose phone call was the key to gaining entry into the YFZ ranch. Texas CPS officials have stated that, as told to the Deseret News, “she won’t have to walk through the courtroom doors Thursday for the state to prove its case of widespread child abuse at the Fundamentalist LDS Church compound.”
“I think it is an incredible and astounding exercise of police power,” said civil rights attorney James Harrington. “You can’t take away a kid from their parents by saying, ‘Hey, maybe later on there might be some abuse.’ It’s a way of flipping the Constitution around so that they now have to prove they’re innocent instead of the state having to prove they’re guilty.”
Judge Walther was also responsible for ruling against the the detainees, preventing mothers and children from worshiping in private; preventing mothers from nursing their infants (77 children were age 2 or younger); and for allowing the extraction of DNA samples hundreds of detained children with an expectation of cooperation in order to determine a complete lineage of the ranch.
After negotiations with CPS stalled, attorneys for the mothers of nursing children petitioned Judge Walther to consider allowing them to remain with their children until the results of the DNA testing became known, a process expected to take anywhere from 30 to 50 days. While admitting her knowledge of the benefits of breastfeeding, Judge Walther’s callous response exposed the true feelings of the seasoned state autocrat:
“But every day in this country, we have mothers who go back to work after six weeks of maternity leave… The court has made a determination that the environment those children were in was not safe.”
– Judge Barbara Walther
Reports say that the judge then deferred to CPS and attorneys for the women to “work something out on the breast-feeding.” The attorneys stated that no agreement had been reached. Meanwhile, CPS spokeswoman (yes, another one), Shari Pulliam, stated definitively that the agency intended to send the women back home: “We don’t place adult women in foster care,” she said. “Our main thing is to protect children from abuse and neglect.” Note the specific mentioning of “abuse and neglect,” echoing the disputable allegations made by the court. This is typical bureaucratic behavior wherein law enforcement hides behind the unaccountability of CPS, and CPS hides behind the legalese and secrecy of the court to divest the accused of due process.
Children Finally Returned
By the first week of June 2008, the last of the children taken during the April raid on the YFZ ranch were returned to their parents, but not without one final insult from CPS:
“They’ve bonded with some of the caregivers, and there were tears from the caregivers also — tears all around,” said Estella Olguin, a spokeswoman for CPS in the Houston region, who was there for the release process, which state officials said could take until Friday across the state. “Most of the children are very young — they’re toddlers — so they don’t really know what’s going on.”
CPS had the audacity to claim that the stolen FLDS children were unhappy about leaving CPS custody because they had grown attached to their caregivers. CPS did not go on record as to the level of unhappiness the children experienced due to being taken from their parents at gunpoint.
CPS originally claimed to have identified 31 “underage mothers,” only to rescind that figure and declare most of them as “legal adults.” Only 4 underage teen mothers remained. It can be observed that the suspected rate of FLDS underage pregnancy — roughly 1% — is comparable or better than many school districts in the USA.
Dallas Attorney Laura Shockley, who represented some of the girls disputed by the state to be minors, called the actions of the Texas CPS, “… a huge mistake. I think they violated those young women’s constitutional rights, and they should prepare themselves for the possibility of attorneys addressing that.” Shockley further stated, “This is egregious, what they have done. If there are violations at the ranch, CPS had a right to investigate them. The procedures they used are gross, overreaching and gross negligence in their part.”
Texas ACLU executive director, Terri Burke, questioned whether the “proceedings adequately protected the fundamental rights of the mothers and children.” In her written statement, Burke also said, “As this situation continues to unfold, we are concerned that the constitutional rights that all Americans rely upon and cherish — that we are secure in our homes, that we may worship as we please and hold our places of worship sacred, and that we may be with our children absent evidence of imminent danger [the current legal standard] — have been threatened.”
The Third Court of Appeals in Austin later ruled that Judge Barbara Walther’s court “abused its discretion” by relying on “legally and factually insufficient” evidence to maintain custody of the FLDS children. Appeals Justices W. Kenneth Law, Bob Pemberton and Alan Waldrop stated in the opinion, “The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the Department’s witnesses, by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger.”
The circus of injustice that took place in Eldorado remains one of the broadest overreaches of Child Protective Services this country has ever seen. And, sadly, it is one of the least recognized. The media worked feverishly to cast a blanket of guilt over the entire ranch. The FLDS members, with their unusual beliefs and customs, were easy targets for ridicule. Consequently, there was little public outrage as hundreds of innocent families were violated because of the actions of a few.
Despite the mass violations of rights throughout this ordeal — the militant raid, the mass child snatching, the abusive CPS shelters — nothing has been established to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Judge Walther herself remains in office. We know of no one who was reprimanded or lost their job, and we certainly know of no government agent that was punished criminally.
Citizens can test the strength of their rights by observing how they are administered to the most unpopular segments of society. The roundup of the FLDS children — and ultimately the seizure of the entire 1,700 acre ranch — gives Americans some insight to the current state of parental rights, religious rights, and property rights in the USA.
We must never allow ourselves to turn a blind eye as one minority group — however unusual or unpopular — is targeted for official oppression. But in 2008, to paraphrase Martin Niemöller, they came for the fundamentalists and we said nothing.