It was on this date, April 4, 2008, that the raid on the YFZ (“Yearning for Zion”) Ranch, owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), by Texas Child Protective Services began in Schleicher County, Texas. The largest child protection action in American history, Texas CPS removed hundreds of minor children, infants, and women believed to be children from the YFZ Ranch polygamist community, with the assistance of heavily armed police with an armored personnel carrier. The raid was prompted by calls from females identifying themselves as abused juveniles. However, one or more of these calls was made by Rozita Swinton, a Colorado Springs, Colorado resident, masquerading as a resident and victim of physical and sexual abuse. In her calls, Swinton identified herself as 16-year-old “Sarah.” She was later arrested and the real “Sarah,” if there was one, was never shown to exist. In all, a total of 462 children went into the temporary custody of the State of Texas, where it was reported that they were forced to submit to interrogations and physical examinations by the state that terrified them.
It is understandable that any religious group that keeps itself apart from, and shields its workings from, mainstream society would come under suspicion of doing bad things. A custody hearing on April 17 heard charges of patterns of abuse by adults, including marriages between young girls and older men, all of which were denied by YFZ Ranch residents. The judge ordered 416 children to be held in protective custody. But in a May 22 appeals court ruling, the appellate judge ruled that there was not enough evidence to justify keeping the children in state custody, adding that the lower court judge had abused her discretion by keeping the children in state care. The conditions under which the children were held in custody were themselves criticized by several groups. On May 29, the Texas Supreme Court allowed the appeals court ruling to stand, which required the Texas CPS to return the children to their homes.
While there were clearly some irregularities at the YFZ Ranch under their leader, Warren Jeffs – some underage marriages were discovered, and twelve men, not all apparently from the ranch, indicted on charges including assault and bigamy – the Christian legal group Liberty Legal Institute went a little too far in claiming opponents of similar groups could file similarly false complaints against families to force attendance in “government-run” (i.e., public) schools. However, the ACLU maintained that the raid was prompted by a single, unsubstantiated allegation of abuse, and that “exposure to a religion’s beliefs, however unorthodox, is not itself abuse and may not constitutionally be labeled abuse.” What could have been a story of religious harm to children, turns out to have been a story of religious bigotry by public officials: remember the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, under David Koresh?
Here’s your Week in Freethought History: This is more than just a calendar of events or mini-biographies – it’s a reminder that, no matter how isolated and alone we may feel at times, we as freethinkers are neither unique nor alone in the world. Last Sunday, May 20, but 206 years ago, my namesake, John […]