I am one of the few bystanders involved with the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints mess who seems free to speak. I have seen firsthand how extraordinarily screwed up this whole thing has become. I hosted one of the young mothers from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in my home for over a week, and in the process became close to her. Let’s call her Abby.
I spent more than a decade as executive director of SafePlace, a program providing safety, healing, and domestic violence and sexual assault prevention in Austin and Travis County. So I am well connected with the state and local networks that kicked into gear when large numbers of FLDS women and children were removed from their homes. I am not a social worker or an attorney, but when the call went out for attorneys and social workers to help, I volunteered to pitch in however I could. I admit that my initial fervor was fueled by my abhorrence of the lifestyle inflicted on the women associated with the FLDS sect, and by my concern for the children.
Within days, I received a call asking if I was willing to let Abby stay with me so she could have access to her two children in foster care here in Austin. I was told that Abby was 23 years old and the mother of a 2-year-old boy and a baby girl. Mothers of children younger than 1 were allowed to stay with their kids, but since Abby’s baby girl turned 1 year old while the families were being held in San Angelo’s Coliseum, Abby was unable to stay with her when the children were put into foster care, despite the fact that she was still nursing.
I cannot overstate my anxiety as I went to pick Abby up. My family has a television in almost every room. Red (a sacred color in the FLDS, and therefore not worn or used for decorative purposes) is one of the main colors in my home and my wardrobe. I try to make a home-cooked meal every couple of weeks, and no one accuses me of using healthy ingredients.
On the other hand, I think I dress fairly modestly. I have an extraordinarily happy marriage and have raised good kids, all now fully grown or nearly so. I am an understanding person who is able to set interpersonal boundaries.
My anxiety was nothing compared with Abby’s. She had been raised primarily in Hildale, Utah, within a multigenerational FLDS family, and had been living at The Ranch, as she referred to the Yearning for Zion compound, for over two years. She told me she had been specifically chosen to move to The Ranch. Abby wears the long, prairie-style dress and the long underwear or “garment” of her faith, and her long hair is styled in the bouffant so familiar from recent media coverage. She is smart and funny and delightful to have around.
I told her we would need to go to the store to get food that she liked and that if she chose to come with me, which I hoped she would, people would likely stare at her because of her clothing. She said she would like to come and changed into long pants and a long-sleeved, high-necked top. She also took her hair down and let it hang down her back. Our first trip was to Whole Foods Market, where Abby chose the healthiest food I had ever had in my house. That night we went to dinner at a local barbecue restaurant. Each time we returned home, Abby changed back into her traditional garb.
We went somewhere each day: to see her attorney, to the store, to purchase a sewing machine and fabric, to SafePlace so she could meet with an advocate. She was allowed to spend one hour during the week with her children. Each time we went out, Abby changed into regular street clothes and wore her hair long. As the week wore on, she began to leave her hair down and her street clothes on when we returned home from our outings.
Abby was incredibly lucky. Her two children were placed together in Austin. It was rare to meet a mom whose children had all been placed in the same community.
I was constantly asked about Abby’s husband and family back in Hildale. I didn’t ask Abby about those details. She shared information with me as she became comfortable, and I didn’t want to put her in the uncomfortable position of refusing to answer my questions or having to tell me an untruth. It appeared to me that she was speaking every night with someone who was giving her instructions about what she could and could not say. Once I answered the phone just as she had picked up the receiver, and I heard an older man’s voice. I hung up.
When Abby asked me what I thought of her and of what was going on, I tried to be honest. I told her I didn’t agree with some aspects of her religion, but that I hadn’t invited her into my home to change her. She said she had “chosen” her life as a member of the FLDS. I said that while she might have made that choice, it didn’t appear that the children being raised at the Yearning for Zion Ranch were being given a choice. They were being raised in such an insular and isolated community that they didn’t know they had options.
Abby’s immediate response was, “If I have to choose between my religion or my children, I will, without question or hesitation, choose my children.”After a week at my home, Abby came to tell me that someone would pick her up the next day to move her to a rented house in Austin. That night at dinner, she tearfully asked that I “please not forget” her. Hugging her, I assured her I had grown to love her, that she had enriched my life, and that she will always have a place in our home. “I could never forget you,” I told her.
The next morning a young man arrived in a large, new SUV. I invited him into the house to help us gather Abby’s belongings. He was respectful and polite. As they left, Abby, the only passenger in the vehicle, tucked herself into the back seat behind the driver.
I have seen and spoken with Abby several times since. We e-mail almost every day. Several days after her move, I took her to visit her children at the time appointed by Child Protective Services. When I asked where I should pick her up, she said she would meet me at Costco. She was delivered by a different young man in a van, and Abby, the only passenger, was again sitting in the back. When the visit was finished, she called for her ride, and I dropped her off at a public location where she again climbed into the back seat.
A few days later, the day before Mother’s Day, Abby called to ask if she could visit. Delighted, I urged her to come. To my amazement, Abby showed up at my home with her “man.” She never referred to him as her husband, but she did tell me he was her daughter’s father. She had explained to me earlier that her son’s father was a different man, from Hildale, who had gotten into trouble with the church. She had been sent to the Yearning for Zion Ranch while pregnant with his son.I would estimate her “man” to be in his mid to late 30s, and he was respectful and kind toward me. Both he and Abby brought me flowers, Abby saying hers were for Mother’s Day. He offered his thanks for the kindness I had shown Abby.
My husband asked if he was staying at the ranch. He responded, “No, I am one of the bad guys, so I have had to leave and go a couple of thousand miles away.”I told him that I recognized the courage it took for him to come to our house. And then they left, Abby in her prairie dress, he in his buttoned-up shirt and jeans, walking hand-in-hand up my driveway to their large, late-model truck. This time I didn’t see if Abby climbed into the back seat.
The original fervor that fueled my offer of assistance has been modified by this experience. I would take Abby into my home again without hesitation, but I no longer have such clarity of purpose. I am a devoted feminist who has spent almost my entire adult life working for the rights of women and girls, but I have seen how hard it is for the state to impose those rights on unwilling participants. And I have seen how an inept bureaucracy can subvert the best intentions.
This debacle is firmly in the hands of a rigid and unbending bureaucracy. Almost everyone involved seems to recognize the inadequacy of the system for dealing with this issue, but no one seems to have the power to fix it.
By my count, we must now have more than 600 attorneys involved in this process. Each child has an attorney, and each mother has an attorney. Some have more than one. State agencies, public health systems, children’s and battered women’s shelters, court-appointed special advocates, and many more are devoting resources, staff, and volunteer hours to the issue. All of this in a state that is notoriously stingy when it comes to allocating funds for health and human services.
Should something be done to ensure that children are not forced into sexual relationships? Absolutely. Is this the way to do it? I think not.
Abby is one of the mothers being represented by a Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid attorney, and the appeals court recently ruled that her children be returned to her. The night of the ruling, I saw her on TV. Abby doesn’t watch television or read the newspaper, so I made sure she knew about her new celebrity. True to form for many young women, Abby’s response was, “I look so fat.”
I spoke with Abby recently and asked about the status of her reunion. She said CPS was claiming it couldn’t return the children because the agency couldn’t be certain which children belonged with which mothers. Having taken moms to visit their children, I found this excuse ludicrous. The children run to their mothers, terrified of the moment they will be wrenched from them yet again.
I have no easy answers. While Abby assures me she knew of no underage girls being married off to older men or becoming pregnant, I doubt the veracity of that statement. I have been told videos were found in the temple showing girls as young as 12 being married to much older men. And I am haunted by Abby’s constant refrain of subservience: “What do you wish from me?”
While staying at my house, Abby was never introduced to any of my African-American or gay friends, but I wonder what her reaction might have been if she had. I was told stories of FLDS moms asking black foster care workers if they had “devil’s tails.”
These were young women who had been raised with the belief that black people are inferior and the devil’s spawn, and this could have been their first encounter with an actual black person.
My husband has three biracial grandchildren by a previous marriage, and their photos are in almost every room of our house. Abby often asked me about family photos of my sister, my brothers, my parents, and so forth, but she never asked about the photos of a white man, his black wife, and their three beautiful children.
It also became clear to me that Abby felt she and her fellow FLDS members led a superior lifestyle, and she preferred her homemade ice cream, homegrown fruits and vegetables, self-made clothing, and piousness to my media-infested, store-bought, restaurant-eating ways. She clearly yearned for the simpler and, in many ways, more wholesome life she had led at the ranch.
I fear that by removing these women and children from their homes, by separating children from their siblings as well as their parents, we have driven these families further underground. Now that their children are being returned to them, and having been shown how unfair the outside world can be, will they retreat even further into isolationism and fanaticism?
If we want to create long-term change, we must think of new and creative ways to deal with these families. They are not the usual CPS cases, and we must create a system that is capable of treating each and every one of them with the respect, kindness, and individual attention that is their due, and the due of every Texas family. We must give them a reason to want to be part of our world.
Kelly White lives in Austin and has worked with programs providing assistance for individuals and families in crisis for more than two decades. She is currently working on a book, A Safe Place. White is also on the board of the nonprofit Texas Democracy Foundation, which publishes the Observer.