Uncertain Future for Polygamy Kids

Welfare experts fear state's actions worse than what may have happened at ranch.

ByABC News
April 16, 2008, 2:23 PM

April 17, 2008 — -- It was like a kid's worst nightmare: Police with automatic weapons descended, strangers swept children off to a cold, crowded shelter, chicken pox broke out, and then their moms were hauled away.

In the largest child welfare case in U.S. history, 416 children were removed from the polygamous Yearning for Zion ranch in rural Texas after authorities received a complaint alleging sexual abuse.

These insulated children -- some as young as 5 years old -- have been taken from their mothers to prevent any further possible abuse and will be placed in foster care until a judge unravels this massive custody fight.

But child welfare experts fear the state's actions may be worse than whatever might have gone on at the ranch.

"What Texas has done is barbaric," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. "The worst thing you can do to these children is separate them from their mothers."

"Taking a child away is tantamount to pouring salt in an open wound, so basically the position of the Texas Department of Child Protective Services is 'Pass the salt,'" he told ABCNEWS.com.

Texas Children's Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner defended her decision to separate children from their mothers, saying she had consulted experts.

"I can tell you we believe the children who are victims of abuse or neglect, and particularly victims at the hands of their own parents, certainly are going to feel safer to tell their story when they don't have a parent there that's coaching them with how to respond," Meisner told The Associated Press.

But Wexler countered in his blog. "No doubt Texas CPS will claim that they had to get the mothers completely out of the way to make it easier to get the children to tell them what happened at the [ranch]," he wrote. "That's probably true. It also would be easier to get information out of the children if you waterboarded them -- but that doesn't make it a good idea."

Texas District Judge Barbara Walther admitted to news media "Quite frankly, I'm not sure what we're going to do" as the fate of hundreds of children hung in limbo.

Former state welfare judge Scott McCown echoed concerns that the beleaguered Texas foster care system could not handle this dramatic case.

"They are trying to do the best job they can," McCown, now executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, told ABCNEWS.com. "But Texas has an underfunded and overworked foster care system."

The state recently added 500 new caseworkers, but at least that many are now rotating three-day shifts to help in St. Angelo, where most of the children are being held at the coliseum.

"It's putting a tremendous strain on the system," he said. "It's tough on all our kids, because of the tremendous energy and time and money that is being diverted from everywhere in the state."

Many child advocates say that even in ordinary circumstances, separation from the mother is the worst-case scenario for the well-being of the child. They say a disproportionate number of foster children end up in jail, psychiatric institutions or homeless shelters.

The national coalition cites an 80 percent failure rate in a foster care, with some studies showing abuse in up to one-third of all foster homes. "It's a pernicious system that churns out the walking wounded," said Wexler. "Some of these kids are likely to be abused again."