As repugnant as some of the accusations of forced sexual encounters at a polygamist Texas ranch may be, an appeals court has urged an appropriate restraint. Children can't be removed from their parents, the court ruled Thursday, without evidence of an imminent threat to their safety. Even state child welfare officials concede that few of the 468 children they removed were in such danger.
The alarm was that underage girls were being forced into sexual relationships with older men at the Yearning for Zion ranch. But state officials identified only five potential victims and did not allege any other type of abuse toward children. Why, then, would the state remove all the boys? Why would it remove pre-
pubescent girls? Why separate babies from their parents?
"Even if one views the (polygamist) belief system as creating a danger of sexual abuse by grooming boys to be perpetrators of sexual abuse and raising girls to be victims of sexual abuse," the court wrote, "… there is no evidence that this danger is 'immediate' or 'urgent' with respect to every child in the community."
Texas child welfare authorities are appealing the ruling, but their time would be better spent by focusing their efforts on the girls who are in fact in danger. What purpose is served, for example, by continuing to keep the 1- and 2-year-old children of Martha Emack separated from their mother?
The attempt to treat the 1,691-acre facility as though it were a single household was problematic from the start. The state's own investigators ended up testifying that the ranch is split up into different family groups and that not all the families believe in polygamy or marriage at a young age. They also were forced to concede that teenage pregnancy does not normally result in children being removed from other homes.
The worst part about the way Texas has botched this case is that it may make it harder to protect girls who truly are in danger there. Last November, sect leader Warren Jeffs was convicted in Utah of forcing a 14-year-old girl to submit to sexual relations with her 19-year-old cousin. There is no reason to believe such practices have been eliminated at the Texas ranch.
A more measured response at Yearning for Zion would have allowed the state to protect the girls who are in danger and to later remove other children as necessary. It also would have prevented hundreds of children from being tossed into foster homes throughout the state, an exercise that now seems to bear its own dimension of cruelty.