SAN ANGELO, Texas – For nearly two months, Texas child welfare officials had insisted conditions at a polygamist group's ranch were so abusive that none of its members should be allowed to keep their children.
Now, however, one of the of the largest custody cases in U.S. history is unraveling, and some are looking for what went wrong when the state raided the Yearning For Zion Ranch and removed more than 400 children.
Since the state Supreme Court ruled that the Texas Department of Child Protective Services overreached when it swept the children into foster care, agency officials have been unwilling to discuss the case, their strategy or what went wrong.
However, some close to the debacle say the operation was doomed from the start by a series of missteps.
First is the oddity of a religious sect the agency knew little about, exacerbating the inherent perils of balancing parents' rights and child safety. Then there were the abuse allegations, starting with a mysterious telephone call and echoed by disgruntled former members, seemingly accepted at face value.
And an ill-fated 1992 brush with another religious sect — which led to the fiery deaths of 21 children at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco — still lingers on the agency's collective conscience.
"It's difficult to know whether, in fact, they screwed it up," said Linda Spears, vice president of the Child Welfare League of America, a national collection of nonprofits that aid abused and neglected children. "It's the 20/20 hindsight thing."
Folks in Schleicher County, a dusty patch near the middle of Texas, had been at least curious, if not suspicious, of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway from the Mormon church whose members believe polygamy earns glorification in heaven.
Members of the group revered leader Warren Jeffs as a prophet. Since the start of the group's Texas ranch, he has been convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape and is jail in Arizona awaiting trial on separate charges.
Sheriff David Doran cultivated a confidential informant to monitor the group's activities, and former FLDS members recounted abuse and forced marriages to anyone who would listen.
Investigators "listened to a lot of misinformation and allowed themselves to be kind of captivated by these anti-FLDS people," said FLDS spokesman Rod Parker.
When someone purporting to be a pregnant 16-year-old called a domestic abuse hot line claiming her middle-aged husband beat her, authorities went in with Child Protective Services workers on April 3. But the calls may have been a hoax.
"We had no choice but to treat those calls as credible. If we had not treated them as credible and something bad happened, people would be very upset," said Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, which is still investigating possible sex abuse at the ranch in addition to the origin of the hot line calls.
Children and mothers were taken away from the ranch because CPS workers thought it would be better to interview them at a neutral location, something that wasn't done in the last high-profile brush the agency had with a religious sect — the Branch Davidians.
CPS workers were confused about names, ages, and relationships of the children and adults in the complicated group marriages of the FLDS. The agency said at the time it believed sect members were deliberately misleading investigators about the names, ages and parentage of the children.
Although caseworkers said when they took custody of all the children that the sect was forcing underage girls into marriage and sex and training boys to be adult perpetrators, only a few dozen of the children swept into custody turned out to be teenage girls, and only a handful had children or were pregnant. Of 31 mothers CPS said were minors, at least half turned out to be adults.
David Schenck, an attorney for some of the mothers, said CPS workers were confronted with a decision when they arrived at the ranch: identify all the men who might be suspected abusers or grab all the children.
"They were interested in taking care of kids, but the problem is they took on more than the evidence is going to support," he said.
Parker called the agency "heavy-handed." A state appeals court essentially agreed, saying the state failed to show that any more than five of the teenage girls were being sexually abused, and had offered no evidence of sexual or physical abuse against the other children. The Texas Supreme Court agreed in a ruling issued Thursday.
Spears, a caseworker-turned-advocate, said that despite the high-profile nature of the FLDS case, the dilemma faced by CPS is little different than in most removal cases.
"At the time you walk in, you have very little information even in the best cases," she said, noting the snap risk assessments caseworkers are often asked to make.
The second-guessing, too, is typical. CPS also was criticized for its handling of the Branch Davidians cult at its ranch compound outside Waco. Allegations of abuse at the Waco ranch had swirled for years, but interviews with children at the compound produced no outcry of abuse and CPS closed its investigation in 1992.
A year later, federal agents raided the fortified compound in a weapons investigation. Fire broke out and the 21 children died.
Spears said agencies worry about making wrong calls and seeing harm come to children. Decision-making often swings in reaction to criticism of previous cases or child deaths.
"It swings back and forth," she said. "There's no exact science being practiced here."