Don’t mess with Texas.The slogan used to be reserved for bumper stickers. But on April 3, Texas authorities showed the world a whole new meaning of the phrase—spreading out on a sprawling FLDS compound in Eldorado, ultimately taking more than 400 children of polygamists into custody. They did so, apparently, based on a March 31 phone call from a 16-year-old girl, who claimed to have been forced into marrying a 50-year-old man and to have had his child.
Bam. Done. Round up the kids and many of their mothers. Give them safety and shelter. Detain the men on the YFZ Ranch. Bring on the search warrants. Ask questions later. In this landmark case of child protection, that’s how it’s done deep in the heart of Texas.
Utah was never so bold. When we had our chance to clean up a similar mess over decades, our blessed state wimped out. Legal authorities have fussed and fretted for more than a half-century, since the infamous 1953 raid on Arizona’s Short Creek, where 160 children were rounded up and kept in state custody for two years. It’s been Utah’s policy—forged in the past eight years, primarily by Attorney General Mark Shurtleff—to work slowly and practically with FLDS communities and in prosecuting men who groom little girls to be their sex partners and take them as underage wives.
For eight years, Shurtleff has said he finds the behavior of convicted sex criminal Warren S. Jeffs and his followers reprehensible. Shurtleff has said he’ll fully prosecute anyone who forces a young girl into marriage—because that goes far beyond anyone’s right to free practice of religion.
Authorities got their big fish last year—one-time FLDS prophet Jeffs—after he’d been on the run since 2006. A St. George jury found him an accomplice to the rape of Elissa Wall, for arranging her underage marriage some years ago to an adult male.Meanwhile, for years—decades—children on the Utah side of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints enclave have been raised in isolation and brainwashed to believe that grown men have the patriarchal right to impregnate girls who still have one foot in puberty.
As Jeffs fought his legal battles unfolding in Utah and Arizona, hundreds of his followers fled to Eldorado, where they scratched out a whole new compound on 1,691 acres in West Texas. They went about their work earnestly, trying to keep a low profile. They built a towering limestone temple and their trademark big, boxy houses and outbuildings.Utah politicians and law enforcement officials have a 160-year history of living with polygamy. For many, “the principle” is a part of their sacred ancestral heritage, which has somehow kept it from serious scrutiny. For so many others, polygamy remains just another element of Utah’s wacky religious back-story—like inexplicable liquor laws and closing off public access to Main Street. And that means that as time passes, polygamy and the outgrowth of child abuse come to be seen as silly cultural icons worthy of only an eye roll.
Fortunately, Texas wasn’t hoisting that baggage. When hundreds of FLDS followers began moving in, authorities took notice. It isn’t that Texans haven’t had their share of odd religious sects and subcultures—the ill-fated followers of David Koresh, whose compound was burned down in a 1993 siege being a recent example. So they watched another bizarre and secretive sect moving in and got busy.
Almost simultaneously with the establishment of the YFZ Ranch, Texas legislators raised the legal age for marriage to 16. It was one effort to head off any problems—they hoped—with underage marriages in Eldorado.
Harassment? Religious persecution? Hardly. It’s about time someone took polygamy as practiced by the FLDS seriously. Taking young girls as wives is wrong. It isn’t a civil right and it isn’t a quaint lifestyle. Texas had the advantage of knowing little about the practice, and when the time came to go out and protect children suspected to have been abused, the state did not hesitate.
As I write this, men who have been detained at the YFZ are crying out against Texas cops and social-service authorities. They have hired lawyers to represent their interests and that is their right. The case Texas is trying to build against the clan in Eldorado is in process. Like most child welfare cases, it is slow going, piecemeal and light on specifics. These problems are increased tenfold when trying to gain information from a society whose trademarks are secrecy, isolation and pathological distrust of government and civil authority.
Authorities have yet to identify the girl who tipped them off. Perhaps she doesn’t exist. But an exhaustive search of the compound is going down and, given the history of the FLDS, it’s likely some stone of criminal evidence will be uncovered.And if not? At least Texas took a stand and turned an ear toward a population that should matter most but seldom does: children. Their fathers can scream all day about their rights; at least they have a voice.
Utah should be such a busybody.