Thursday, August 7, 2008

Updated Aug. 8: Some FLDS families are exonerated

Texas Child Protective Services has effectively admitted that 32 of the children torn from their families on the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado never needed to be thrown into foster care.

That's not how they put it, of course. Rather, they say they dropped the cases because, according to news accounts, CPS found no evidence of underage marriages or the families "agreed to take appropriate actions to protect their children."

This is a perfect illustration of why state laws generally say that one should not take a child first and ask questions later unless CPS has strong evidence of imminent danger – and why it is so tragic that such language routinely is ignored.

There never was any indication that if a child was not taken from the ranch today, she'd be married off tomorrow. And, it should be recalled, CPS took infants, toddlers, and other children nowhere near puberty. There was time to find out that these families were innocent without subjecting their children to the trauma of separation from everyone they know and love. There was time to find out these families were innocent and/or willing to "take appropriate steps…" without interning the children in their own private Guantanamo during the first days after the raid. There was time to find out that these families were innocent without inflicting emotional scars that may never heal.

"My little guy was just a baby," the law guardian for a child believed to be among the 32 told the Deseret News. "There was no reason for them to be in the system."

Unfortunately, this news was buried in stories that focused on the fact that CPS is trying to put eight FLDS children back into foster care.

UPDATE: The Deseret News focused on the exonerations in a follow-up story today. That story quotes a lawyer for four of the innocent parents, who says: "This decision may come four months after the raid, but it proves that the courts were right — these mothers are good parents, and their children were never at risk."

But even the cases in which CPS is trying to return children to foster care illustrate how CPS got it wrong the first time. In these cases CPS took the refreshingly novel approach of doing the investigation first. In most cases, they zeroed in on specific instances where they allege mothers "allowed" underage marriages and declined to sign "safety plans." The plans required the mothers to promise not to allow underage marriages and to limit children's contact with men allegedly involved in such marriages.

That doesn't mean CPS is necessarily right this time. There still may well be ways short of removal for CPS to accomplish its goals. And there can be good reasons not to sign the "safety plan." As The Salt Lake Tribune reported:

Attorney Stephanie Goodman, who represents [one of the mothers] said she advised her client against signing a plan that "will only be used against [her] in the future.

"My client is verbally and physically implementing the safety plan and CPS has the right to ensure by unannounced visits that she is keeping and providing her child a safe and stable environment," Goodman said.

But at least this time CPS is going about it the right way. The children will remain in their homes at least until a court hearing on September 25, where all sides can be heard. But there still is a problem: That hearing will be before Judge Barbara Walther, the same judge who rubber stamped the mass removal of the children in the first place.