Saturday, May 24, 2008

Deep in the Heart of Texas: Sanity Prevails on Appeal

Yesterday, a state appellate court in Austin TX (comprised of three Republican judges, I might add) struck down the lower court ruling that gave the state custody over the 468 children that had been forcibly removed from the Yearning for Zion Ranch by the State Dept of Family and Protective Services (FPS) in the April 3, 2008 raid on the fundamentalist enclave located in west Texas, about 45 miles south of San Angelo.

The judges unanimously concluded that evidence supporting the claim that the children were collectively in immediate danger of sexual or physical abuse was insufficient. Legal experts noted that it was highly unusual for an appeals court to rule on a continuing case, and could be construed as a sure sign that the evidence supporting the lower court action was egregiously weak. Unless new evidence is brought to light (deemed unlikely) or a stay is granted by the State Supreme Court, it is expected that most of the children will be returned to their families, perhaps as soon as next week.

To be clear, this is not a blanket exoneration of activities at Yearning for Zion. It is a rejection of the thinking that: a) the community can reasonably be viewed as a single household; and b) if any child in the community is at risk of abuse then all are equally at risk. Assuming the appellate court ruling holds, the state will now have to make the case for abuse for each child individually. Here is the ruling on that:

"The notion that the entire ranch community constitutes a "household" as contemplated by section 262.201 [of Texas law] and justifies removing all children from the ranch community if there even is one incident of suspected child sexual abuse is contrary to the evidence. The [FPS]'s witnesses acknowledged that the ranch community was divided into separate family groups and separate households. While there was evidence that the living arrangements on the ranch are more communal than most typical neighborhoods, the evidence was not legally or factually sufficient to support a theory that the entire ranch community was a "household" under section 262.201."

FPS tried to make the case that the children were in immediate danger by virtue of living in a cmty which held the belief that it was acceptable for post-pubescent teenage girls to marry and bear children. The appeals court explicitly rejected this line of argument as well:

"The simple fact, conceded by [FPS], that not all [Yearning for Zion] families are polygamous or allow their female children to marry as minors demonstrates the danger of removing children from their homes based on the broad-brush ascription of every aspect of a belief system to every person living among followers of the belief system or professing to follow the belief system."

These are potentially important rulings for intentional cmties, as they build case law establishing that (at least in the state of Texas) families and households are not considered to have surrendered their judgment or responsibility by virtue of having chosen a communal lifestyle. I applaud the appeals court for its sensible stand.

We live in a culture that celebrates individualism to the extreme—perhaps more than any other culture in human history. Intentional cmties (in varying degrees) make a conscious effort to offer a lifestyle where individuals, as members, voluntarily surrender some of their rights to the group, based on an understanding of alignment with the group around fundamental values (which, by the way, the individuals have a right to help articulate). The key thing to understand here is the word "some." No intentional cmty, to my knowledge, asks its members to surrender all individual rights to the group. This is a nuance that FPS seems to have misunderstood, yet the state appellate court, thankfully, did not.

I have no first-hand knowledge of Yearning for Zion Ranch, and am in no position to ascertain whether abuse occurred or not. If there is solid evidence that it occurred—and FPS thinks there is—then I support its investigation and adjudication.

At this point, FPS has egg on its face for the overzealousness with which it conducted the Yearning for Zion raid and investigation. Maybe it shouldn't have taken all the eggs out of the basket and tried to cook them all at once. In its haste, FPS has likely caused at least as much trauma through the forcible separation of children from their parents as it claims to have prevented. They were out of control. [For a more thorough analysis of FPS' actions, see my blog
of April 22: Yearning for Sanity.]

For the moment, some semblance of control has been restored. Now, perhaps, FPS can get on with a non-hysterical examination of what abuse has actually occurred, involving which specific children. Their proper task is to sort out what is illegal and abusive, from what is merely unpopular and unusual. To be fair, this is not necessarily an easy task to do well. But then, neither is raising children.

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