Yesterday Rep. Patrick Rose, Chair of the Texas House Human Services Committee, created a subcommittee to analyze the largest child-seizure operation in US history at a polygamist community in West Texas by the state's Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS). Reports the Deseret News:
The Great Eldorado Polygamist Roundup, which garnered international media attention, was set off by a hoax phone call alleging child abuse. The state at one point claimed 466 kids were victims of sexual abuse, but almost all of those cases were later dropped.
At the start of a hearing of the Texas House Human Services Committee on Tuesday, Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, announced the formation of the subcommittee.
"The situation in Eldorado over the interim presented real challenges for the department and real challenges for the state," Rose said. "A lot of us have been talking about those issues during the interim."
Rose said the subcommittee will schedule hearings in the coming weeks and would present a final report to the legislative committee, but he did not say what its specific focus would be.
"Those of us who are on the committee … care deeply about what we can learn, what lessons learned from that experience are," he said.
Members of the Subcommittee on Investigations of Abuse and Neglect of Children and Interagency Cooperation will include Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin; Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston; and Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo.
"Although it is unlikely that we will see an investigation of this size and scope again, it is important that we hear from caseworkers, law enforcement officers and local elected officials to learn how each of these groups and relevant agencies can better cooperate in investigations of abuse and neglect," Naishtat said Tuesday. "It is important that the state learn from this experience to better protect Texas children."
Rep. Drew Darby's participation on the subcommittee is especially ironic since he was the "real estate attorney who helped create the YFZ Land LLC to purchase the ranch." Later, however, he was a strong supporter of the raid, declaring "I'm so proud of our state for acting in the manner it has acted." Along with state Rep. Harvey Hildebran, he has vowed to file legislation targeting FLDS.
Thankfully, Austin state Rep. Elliot Naishtat will chair the subcommittee, not Darby, so one hopes that means the hearing won't just be a whitewash session.
Nobody claims there weren't any underage marriages among the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) in Eldorado, but it soon became clear the raid-supporters' goal wasn't to go after specific allegations of abuse but essentially to run the FLDS out of town. At the end of the day, there's little doubt the state's actions created boatloads more "human misery," to use Darby's term, than it prevented.
The problem arose because, rather than go after individuals on specific charges, DFPS essentially kidnapped every child they could lay their hands on, even when they didn't know who their parents were or any specific information about them at all. Indeed, after months of vetting every single household, DFPS now claims to have identified only 12 underage marriages, seven of which, they say, produced children. Some of those, however, occurred many years ago and outside of Texas.
The Third Court of Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court later ruled the agency had acted unlawfully by claiming that the religious beliefs of parents at the YFZ Ranch constituted per se abuse. There certainly are a lot of unanswered questions from the raid and its aftermath:
For starters, why hasn't the hoax phone caller been arrested and charged with a crime for her part in launching this mess? I believe it's because her prosecution would reveal incompetence or misconduct by official actors that the state wants to cover up. I'd love to see Rozita Swinton, the hoaxer herself, actually testify at the hearing, but I seriously doubt that will happen. Ditto for Flora Jessop, the anti-FLDS activist who was in communication with Swinton for several days before the raid.
What really happened at the San Angelo Coliseum after FLDS children were taken away from their mothers? The committee should investigate allegations of abuse and neglect by state workers charged with caring for the children.
Relatedly, will the committee hear from MHMR workers who dealt with the kids after they were separated from their mothers and believed the state subjected FLDS kids to abuse? Here are some of their letters:
- "This was a travesty."
- "This situation was a tragedy."
- "It was heartwrenching."
- "Our roles became... confidant and a broker."
- "That is a very good question."
- "Ashamed of being a Texan."
- "I often felt helpless."
- "Vast amounts of hypocrisy."
- "Even to be an observer was difficult."
- "This incident... is not what America or Texas stands for."
- "Even the simplest request was discounted."
DFPS got approval to hire 90 new staff people to handle the FLDS case. Will the agency keep those positions? What's the status of that impromptu expansion?
More importantly, does DFPS have too much authority to seize children without adequately documenting real abuse? It's not just a problem with polygamist households.
Finally, though the Deseret News said the subcommittee would hear from "caseworkers, law enforcement officers and local elected officials," IMO the witness list shouldn't be so limited. There were many ad litem attorneys appointed to represent the kids in this case and I'm hopeful some of them will show up in Austin to tell the story from their perspective.
Let me know in the comments what other questions you think the subcommittee should address and what witnesses they should ask to appear before them.