I was in New Orleans when I saw CNN's heavy coverage on the raid on the strange religious compound of the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saint (FLDS) Church in Texas. Sadly, my reaction was a selfish one. I cringed and felt embarrassed to have anything in common with these religious cousins, and wished that modern polygamy in these strange groups would just go away and stay out of the news. Here were 400 children being ripped away from their home and their families by the power of the State, one of the most traumatic things that could happen to them, and my reaction was to think about me and possible PR problems for my religion ("no, we don't practice polygamy! those people aren't us!"), while ignoring the trauma of fellow humans in my own nation who might have much in common with me. I apologize for my pettiness.
I erred in not raising questions sooner about these actions. I accepted the media coverage at face value - something a lifetime of experience has taught me to be foolish. But then some questions began percolating. I recalled some of my painful experiences with the Hmong community, where teenage marriage is a common part of their culture, even here in the U.S. In my experience, the child protection authorities rarely do anything severe in these cases. Raiding a Hmong family or "compound" with a pregnant teenager and taking the kids away would be unthinkable here (and that's a good thing). I know one case where a 25-year-old man "married" a 13-year-old girl, who soon gave birth to a baby. This was over a decade ago, when I think the laws were enforced a little more vigorously. The man had serious legal trouble and was convicted of a felony, but the child was not removed from the home, the marriage was not broken up, the man was not imprisoned as far as I know, and the family remains a healthy and happy family to this day. The woman tells other Hmong girls not to do something as stupid as marry at age 13, and says it made her life "hell" for quite a while - but she has triumphed in so many ways and is a remarkable mother, woman, employee, and now a college graduate.
I know of recent cases where 18- or 19-year-old men married 14-year-old girls who soon gave birth, and the girls attended high school and the couple seemed to live in the open without having to flee from authorities anxious to take kids away. There have been times when I wished the authorities would have stepped in and saved a young teenager from being pressured into marriage. In one case, at the request of a 16-year-old girl, I got involved with the police when an older (age 19) man who had sex with her and had been pressuring her to marry him got angry and told her to commit suicide. He gave her a bottle of pills to swallow, and she took them (she was OK, thanks to her mom getting her to the hospital quickly). Shortly after she got out of the hospital and the 72-hour mental health watch (as I recall - it's been a while), I was there with her mother trying to help the police understand that this guy was dangerous, that charges should be filed and that he must be kept away. How shocked I was when a woman police officer who had just interviewed the good-looking man came to talk with the girl. In the officer's view, it was just a wonderful love story. I can still hear the voice of that officer: "But he loves you." How sweet - it was all just a misunderstanding and now the couple could be reunited. He ended up "marrying" her and took her to Minnesota, where her life was hell. She finally got the courage to take her two boys and leave him. Her life was set back terribly though all that. How tragic. I've seen things arguably worse than the alleged crime in El Dorado be pretty much ignored by the authorities. Yes, there are differences and gaps between regions, but when I look at what's going on in Texas, it seems more like an intergalactic void than just a regional gap.
The point is, in this day an age of rampant sexual promiscuity, I don't see a lot of raids occurring because a 17-year-old man gets a 16-year-old girl pregnant. Maybe Texas has much higher standards. If a 16-year-old was improperly married to an old man, then investigate that case and file charges against the man. But how dare we sit back and allow an entire community to be raided? How dare we ignore the cries of mothers whose children have been ripped away from them?
Wake up, fellow Mormons. You could be next. Like me, you're a bunch of crackpot loonies teaching your children bizarre things about angels, gold plates, miracles, prophets, and revelations, and you build strange compounds you call temples. Some of you and your kids sit through three-hours of mind control each Sunday, reinforced by early morning seminary for tired teenagers at 6 am each weekday morning to cement their minds with your rigid religious views. And then there's your cult-like/gang-like programming of young men in the Boy Scouts of America, complete with uniforms, colors, and strange hand symbols. How can the all-powerful state allow this kind of deranged parenting to go on? It's not about Mormon mommas and poppas, it's about the children! You can do anything in this world "for the children."
And you Protestants could be on the list next, right after us, and you Catholics, and everyone else. Some of you even live in homes with beds - beds that may very well have an tell-tale female hair or two on them. Which is about the extent of the physical evidence that got 400 kids hauled away from their families in Texas.
The removal of 416 children from their families in the state of Texas is beginning to look more like the Third Reich or the Cultural Revolution of China than the Land of the Free. (Kudos to Guy Murray for his coverage of the case. His blog, Messenger and Advocate, is a good source for tracking the play-by-play action.)
After the broadcast of grieving FLDS mothers a couple days ago, the Texas authorities explained what this action was all about. Pay attention to their words, or rather, to the tone and the messages behind the words, for I think they reveal what you really need to know. The following text comes from a KSL news story, "Texas Defends Separation of FLDS Mothers from Children" by John Hollenhorst and Marc Giauque:
After the sobs and tears of FLDS mothers were broadcast around the world overnight, Texas officials are defending their removal of children from parents. Texas officials aren't backing down a bit in their two-week battle with the religious group led by Warren Jeffs.It's not about the mommas, eh? You're darned right it's not. What about these "unheard" cries of children - who do you think they are crying for? So if some girls are at risk of marrying older men, or if some have gotten pregnant from older men, explain to me how "protecting those children" requires taking them - all 416 of them, a whole community! - away from their homes and especially away from their mothers? Get an injunction to keep older men away from the younger girls, if you must, but to haul off little kids and strip them from their mothers? Their cries are certainly not being heard by those who are abusing them, the officials of Texas.
Marleigh Meisner, with Texas Child Protective Services, said, "Quite frankly, it's not about us, and it's not about the mommas. It's about these children whose cries have been unheard."
A total of 416 FLDS children are now in state custody, mostly at the Coliseum in San Angelo. Eighty-two mothers of younger children remain in the shelter; 57 mothers of older children were sent away by order of state officials; 51 of those returned to the FLDS compound, and six asked to be taken to safe shelters elsewhere.
A TV station in Texas is reporting that some of the children have been taken a very long way from home. Buses arrived last night at Boys Ranch, just outside of Amarillo. That's in the Texas Panhandle, about 350 miles from the FLDS compound in Eldorado. There was no direct confirmation from state officials, but they did acknowledge that about 20 adolescent boys from the FLDS group have been bused away from San Angelo. There's no explanation yet as to why that group is being handled differently.
Under federal and state laws, the children are entitled to a showdown in court on their status. That will happen Thursday.
Today there were some hints that state officials might allow some of the children to see their parents, at least occasionally, in the future. . . .
For the FLDS members, it was an unheard of public relations strategy: they opened the gates last night and allowed news crews to talk to moms. Their tears drew national sympathy. One mother said, "Where are my children? I don't know who's taking care of them."
But Texas officials are giving no ground. One Texas legislator, Rep. Drew Darby, said, "In Texas we have a saying, 'Don't mess with Texas.' Well, I'm going to change that up a bit and say, 'Don't mess with the children of Texas.' And that's what this is about, is protecting those children."
The message that needs to be heard in that quotation above is not the self-righteous proclamation of concern about the children, but the message of trashing parental rights. This isn't about the mommas, and it's not about the children (why abuse them this way if you really cared?). It's about the power of the State, supreme in power over its citizens, able to trash parental rights at will.
Get a bunch of religious weirdos together, have some anonymous tipster point a finger, and then send in the dogs, the troops, or, in the case of Waco, the guns, tanks, and incendiary devices. Tear away all the children, or burn down the whole compound and everyone in it if needs be. By Gov, the State will stand supreme. We can say "good riddance" when it's someone we fear or even detest. But who will be there to stand for us when it's our turn? Because when it comes to religious weirdos, many, perhaps even most of us fit the bill, nutcases who believe in heaven and God, or Allah, Buddha, Elvis, whatever. We're all mentally ill enough and certainly - atheists included - incompetent enough as parents that that a totalitarian State can easily find reason to march in and take away our kids, as long as they can round up an anonymous accuser, or claim there was one, and then find a hair or two on a bed, a child who looks untidy, or evidence of religious mind control like Bibles or Books of Mormon. Not to mention food storage - what are they going to make of that? Let's get this over with and just lock me up now.
This case is not about the children. It's about the power of the State. No apologies. No backing down. No care for the children who are being traumatized and abused as they are torn from their mothers. It's all for their own good and protection, just like the Cultural Revolution.
Can you imagine going into downtown L.A. or the projects of Chicago and, on the basis of allegations that there are some abused kids there, sweeping in with the police and taking away all the kids from the community? There may a variety of crimes that have taken place among the FLDS Church. There may be genuine abuse that needs to be addressed. But the grotesque, massive overreaction of the State of Texas is about something far more than protecting a pregnant 16-year-old, and cannot be compatible with the noble principles of the US Constitution. Let them get away with this abuse, and we will all be at risk in the future.
The Washington Post in an April 15 story provides further insights:
One woman, Marie, said the women weren't allowed to say goodbye to their crying children."Your children belong to us." That's what this story is about. Not how much we dislike a religion, but who children belong to. Parents, or the State? The control of the rising generation is always the key issue when a state expands it power to dangerous levels. It is a dangerous current that can sweep everything else away in time, and we are already knee-deep in the flow.
"They said, 'your children are ours,'" said the sobbing 32-year-old whose three sons are aged 9, 7 and 5 and who would not give her last name. "We could not even ask a question."
She said the children at the ranch have not been abused, but she feels like "they are being abused from this experience." She said the children have been "have been so protected and loved."
The women believe the abuse complaint that led to the raid came from a bitter person outside their community.
I think the FLDS Church is dreadfully wrong and hope its members will get out. I am oppose child abuse, teenage marriage, polygamy, and forced marriages. But those accused of crime still rights and require fair, honest due process based on credible evidence, not hysteria and bigotry. And traumatizing children by separation from their parents should be a last resort only when truly needed to protect the child from eminent harm. If a 16-year-old was abused, if a 14-year-old was pregnant, if one suspects that a bed was used for something other than sleeping, how does that require that little boys and girls be stripped away from their mothers who may only be guilty of having strange beliefs, perhaps only marginally stranger than yours and mine?
Anyone out there dare to speak out? There isn't much time left.
Update: Anderson Cooper's blog has an interesting interview with Kathy Jo Nicholson, a former FLDS member who warns of how harmful the FLDS system has been. More reasoned and credible than much of the coverage. Troubling stuff, yes - but my question is whether the heavy-handed community-wide actions of authorities were justified, and whether it sets a precedent that can be used to haul away children of other strange groups, like the real Mormons, or the Baptists, when anonymous calls are made and "everybody knows" the group is extreme or harmful in some way.