May 2, 2008
On April 3, 2008, Texas law enforcement officials obtained a search warrant related to the suspected sexual assault of a child and then conducted a raid on the Yearning For Zion (YFZ) Ranch near Eldorado, Texas. The search warrant was reportedly based upon a telephone call placed by a female who identified herself as a 16-year old resident at YFZ who was the mother of one child, pregnant with a second child, and who claimed she was being physically abused by her husband. The YFZ Ranch, which is more than 1000 acres in size, apparently housed more than 700 people (men, women, and children) who are associated with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), whose practices include forming families with more than one wife. Although the original search warrant identified only one case of suspected sexual assault, law enforcement officials have now taken into custody all of the approximately 462 children formerly residing at YFZ. The available evidence now suggests that the original call that served as the basis of the warrant was probably made by someone who had never resided at YFZ and that the accused “husband” was at the time residing in Arizona (and may never have lived at YFZ). Since that time, the media, including internet blogs and listservs, have been filled with reports about YFZ and the FLDS that describe forced marriages, marriages involving underage girls, forced sex with children, and other abuses. There also have been reports of young children suffering trauma caused by the forced separation from their parents.
Although all of the facts are not yet known, the governing principles are well-established:
- First, children have a right not to be abused (sexually or otherwise) nor forced into marriages by their parents or by any other person.
- Second, parents have a constitutionally protected right to the free exercise of religion and to raise their children in their own faith.
- Third, children and parents have the right to be together unless it is determined, applying the proper legal standards adopted by the state and consistent with the United States Constitution, that temporary or permanent removal is necessary. Children may not be separated from their parents based solely on the state’s disagreement with a group’s thoughts or beliefs, religious or otherwise.
- Fourth, all persons, including children, have the fundamental right to due process of law. Due process rights for both potential victims and parents accused of neglect or abuse must be respected, and the law must afford each family notice of and the opportunity to contest allegations related to custody in a timely manner.
Based upon news reports and other available information, the ACLU has serious concerns that the state’s actions so far have not adequately protected the fundamental rights at stake. Specifically, the ACLU is concerned that:
- The initial raid at YFZ was prompted by a single allegation of abuse now reported most likely to have been made by someone who never resided at YFZ. Law enforcement officials have since removed every child who was living at the ranch, regardless of age or sex, and the state has justified that decision, in part, by explaining that all children at the ranch were at risk because they were exposed to FLDS beliefs regarding underage marriage. Religion is never an excuse for abuse. But, exposure to a religion’s beliefs, however unorthodox, is not itself abuse and may not constitutionally be labeled abuse.
- Parents have been separated from their children without individual, adversarial hearings and without particularized evidence that they ever engaged in abuse or were likely to engage in abuse. Children from YFZ have since been dispersed around the state, compounding the harm of forced separation of children – particularly infants – and their parents.
- Court-ordered DNA testing has been ordered for all children without having any specific evidence that the parentage of all children was actually in dispute. Parents have been pressured to consent to DNA testing if they wish to be reunited with their children who were forcibly separated from them.
- State officials have an important obligation to protect children against abuse. However, such actions should not be indiscriminately targeted against a group as a whole – particularly when the group is perceived as being different or unusual. Actions should be based on concrete evidence of harm and not based upon prejudice against religious or other communities.
Under these circumstances, it is essential for Texas officials to provide fair judicial proceedings that respect the constitutional rights of all involved – children, parents, and religious communities – while ensuring at the same time that children are protected against abuse where there is credible evidence of such abuse.
The ACLU will continue to monitor the unfolding events and will work to ensure that Texas officials act in a manner that is consistent with the important principles set forth above, including making our views known to the Texas courts at appropriate points in the judicial proceedings.