ELDORADO, Texas – The hundreds of children from a polygamist compound taken into state custody are on their way to group homes, shelters and residences, but experts and lawyers fear their transition may be much harder than it is for other foster children.
The 437 children taken from the compound in West Texas will be plunged into a culture radically different from the community where they and their families shunned the outside world as a hostile, contaminating influence on their godly way of life.
Many of the children have seen little or no television. They have been essentially home-schooled all their lives. Most were raised on garden-grown vegetables and twice-daily prayers with family. They frolic in long dresses and buttoned-up shirts from another century.
"There's going to be problems," said Susan Hays, who represents a toddler in the custody case. "They are a throwback to the 19th century in how they dress and how they behave."
Buses have already shipped 138 children to group homes or boys' and girls' ranches, but most of the remaining children will be separated from their mothers for the first time when they are sent out of San Angelo in the coming days.
The state Child Protective Services program said it chose foster homes where the youngsters can be kept apart from other children for now.
"We recognize it's critical that these children not be exposed to mainstream culture too quickly or other things that would hinder their success," agency spokeswoman Shari Pulliam said. "We just want to protect them from abuse and neglect. We're not trying to change them."
The children were swept up in a raid earlier this month on the Yearning for Zion Ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a renegade Mormon splinter group. Authorities say it believes in marrying off underage girls to older men, and that there is evidence of physical and sexual abuse at the ranch.
The youngsters are being moved out of the crowded San Angelo Coliseum and will be placed in temporary facilities around Texas — some as far away as Houston, 500 miles off — until individual custody decisions can be made.
Those decisions could result in a number of possibilities: Some children could be placed in permanent foster care; some parents who have left the sect may win custody; some youngsters may be allowed to return to the ranch in Eldorado; and some may turn 18 before the case is complete and be allowed to choose their own fates.
Pulliam said the temporary foster care facilities have been briefed on the children's needs. "We're not going to have them in tank tops and shorts," she said.
Pulliam said the children will continue to be home-schooled by the temporary foster-care providers instead of being thrown into big public schools, where they could be bullied because of their differences.
In a related development, an arrest warrant affidavit made public Wednesday shows that a phone number used to report alleged abuse at the Texas retreat had been used previously by a 33-year-old Colorado woman.
It's not yet clear whether authorities suspect Rozita Swinton, of Colorado Springs, made any of the calls that triggered the April 3 raid of the compound.
Texas authorities have said a 16-year-old girl called a crisis center claiming she was abused at the compound. Authorities have not found that girl but say they have found evidence other children were abused.
In February, a woman calling herself "Jennifer" called 911 in Colorado Springs from the same number, claiming that her father had locked her in her basement for days, the document said. Swinton was arrested in connection with that incident on April 16 and later released.