After almost two agonizing months, Sandra Jeffs walked into a shelter near Houston on Monday to reclaim her 1-year-old daughter, Annette. The toddler, like some 400 other children, had been taken away by Texas authorities in early April in a crackdown on a religious sect that practices polygamy.
When Sandra appeared, the little girl, fair-haired and cherubic, seemed puzzled at the sight of her mother. It had, after all, been such a long time for a little one. Rather than lift her arms to her mother, she reached instead for a shelter worker.
"She had forgotten me," says Sandra, 26. "It hurt more than I can even describe.
The children were returned to their mothers this week after two court rulings in Texas found that state child-welfare officials overstepped their bounds in the sudden and drastic intervention at the Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado. The community calls itself the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a group that long ago broke away from the mainstream Mormon church.
State authorities insist the removal of the children was motivated by serious concerns about abuse. The raid had been prompted by a call from a person claiming to be a 16-year-old girl being beaten by a 50-year-old "husband." The source of the call has never been identified; church members and, now, some authorities, suspect it was a hoax.
Still, some lawyers continue to express deep anxiety about the leadership of the polygamous community. Deborah Keenum, who was assigned to represent 11 of the children, noted that recent court evidence included pictures of sect leader Warren Jeffs, now imprisoned for serving as an accessory to rape, passionately kissing a 12-year-old "bride," pictures she found "disturbing, completely disturbing." She adds: "Those children need to be protected. And if mothers allowed that to happen, then that's a failure to protect under state law." Investigators continue to sift through DNA results, which started coming back this week, looking for signs of underage marriages or sexual abuse among the group. Willie Jessop, a spokesman for the sect, on Monday issued a "clarification" that the church would not preside over the marriage of any woman under the age of legal consent. He said the church will tell families that they cannot request or permit any underage marriages. To counter what he has described as malicious and inaccurate information about the sect, Jessop says the church has started a Web site, www.captivefldschildren.org.
Jessop compared the actions of Jeffs to Roman Catholic priests who have been accused of sexual abuse with minors. "Would it be right if you took down the entire Catholic church," he asked, on the basis of isolated priests? He warned that the state's interference in the sect should worry other religious groups. "If they can do it here in this community, they can do it in yours."
In the weeks since the seizure, Keenum said that she did not witness anything untoward. "These mothers, they love their children, they have great relationships with their children," she said. "I never saw signs of abuse or neglect. In fact, I saw more signs of that when they were placed in these homes, simply because the staffs were overwhelmed. They went in well taken care of and well behaved, and they came out with stains on their dresses, disheveled, looking like ragamuffins."
Jeffs, who was convicted for forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry, is still revered as a prophet of the church. His portrait hangs in a meeting hall at the ranch at the front of the line of prophets going back to Joseph Smith. But Keenum and others who have spoken with church members are not convinced that the wider community shares or condones Jeffs's behavior with underage girls.
The state's action has been sharply criticized by many legal experts and child advocates. Rene Haas, a Corpus Christi lawyer who secured the release of three children two weeks ago, has characterized the state's action as "a circus" and says the splitting up of families has possibly done long-lasting harm to the children. "There has been immediate, irrevocable harm done to these children" by the seizure, says Haas, a former state judge who specialized in family law. "This is a disgusting overreach of the state's power."
Some of the children, separated from their parents and whisked away to state custody in homes and facilities throughout Texas, reportedly grew sullen and acted out to protest their confinement. Some openly defied rules, according to several lawyers who represented the kids, sneaking food into their rooms and refusing to go to bed after lights were turned off at night. All the same, some caretakers say they found the children to be delightful, including Jackie Carter, executive director of the High Sky Children's Ranch in Midland. She said the children showed remarkable skills in sewing and baking. They even made their own corn flakes. "They sing like angels," says Carter.
During the separation, Sandra Jeffs, like the other mothers, was permitted to visit her child once a week for an hour. In many cases, the children were housed in facilities hundreds of miles away from their parents.
A few families have made the pilgrimage back to the ranch. But many others say they are too frightened to return, fearing another raid by the state; some were told by their lawyers to establish households in other cities. Jeffs and her daughter are now living in a house with two other women from the group and their children. She is looking for a job and working on restoring the bond with little Annette. "I will do anything to keep her with me," she says. "I will not give her up." Within a day of being released from state custody, Annette was back in her mother's arms, splashing in the sink.