Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Polygamy as euphemism

It may the largest mass removal of children from parents in American history: more than 400 children taken from a compound run by a Mormon splinter group in Texas. And if the charges are true, of all the options, this one may have been the least bad. If only America’s child welfare agencies hadn’t blown their credibility with so much hype and hysteria over the years that we can’t know – yet – if the charges are true.

But if the charges are true, this is not about polygamy. That word implies acts of consenting adults. If the charges are true, this case involves neither consent nor adults. Rather, if the charges are true, in this case polygamy is a euphemism for rape - the mass rape of children.

And the best place to turn for a reminder of what really may be involved may not be Texas or Utah – it just might be the Bronx, as can be seen in this story from The New York Times.

It’s also worth remembering that there is one crucial difference between the removals in Texas and most such cases, a difference that may cushion the blow for most of the children: In many cases, it appears that their mothers are with them. In cases where one parent is the abuser and another is, herself, a victim, our position always has been: Remove the abuser not the children. In one sense, that may have happened this time. Priority number one for Texas authorities should be to make sure that the mothers and their children can stay together.

But then there is that big, nagging “if.” All one has to do is recall the wild allegations of mass molestation in day care centers during the early 1980s to know that child protective services can’t always be counted on to get the facts right. Indeed, the penchant for hype in child welfare is the topic of last week’s post to this Blog. The whole thing is rather like the fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. But even in the fable, ultimately a wolf turns up.

Unfortunately, Texas is particularly unprepared to take so many children at once. For several years, the state has been going through a foster-care panic - a huge surge in removals in the wake of deaths of children "known to the system." NCCPR issued a report on Texas child welfare three years ago, and the panic is still going on. Indeed, for much of last year, some children routinely were warehoused in offices, a problem which only recently has begun to ease.

Whether or not these children needed to be removed, their suffering has been increased because Texas has taken so many other children needlessly, so there is little room for 400 more children in the system. That is a lesson every state should remember.

And, as always, when the topic is child welfare, irony abounds.

● There’s nothing unusual about great big compounds in Texas where children are held in isolation against their will and abused. The former Texas State Comptroller even issued a huge report about them in 2004.

Read that report and it starts to look like that Mormon splinter group may have made one big tactical error: If only they’d called their compound a “therapeutic camp” or a “residential treatment center” odds are no one at Texas Child Protective Services would have done anything about it.

Perhaps now Texas will be as vigilant about the places where it puts children as it is about the places it takes them from.

● Aside from the current case, and another involving the same sect in 1953, the largest "mass evacuation" of children by a child welfare agency actually may have taken place at a facility touted by the media as a model; a place whose praises were sung by 60 Minutes and Time magazine when Newt Gingrich proposed throwing poor people’s children into orphanages: The main campus of Maryville, near Chicago.

When it was revealed seven years later that the campus actually was rife with abuse, the State of Illinois pulled out all of the state wards living there – more than 200 children. Not right away, as they should have – Maryville had far more political clout than a Mormon splinter group - but nevertheless, it happened eventually.

And when it finally happened, Illinois was far better able to handle it than Texas is now. That’s because Illinois had rebuilt its system to emphasize family preservation and was taking children at one of the lowest rates in the country, even as independent monitors found the state had improved child safety. So they had plenty of places for the children.