Sunday, April 20, 2008

Where Mad Love Has Gone: The Shameful Legacies of Polygamist Mormons

Picture in your mind for a moment this narrative: A seemingly nondescript man purchases land in Texas for a 'corporate hunting retreat.' The land in question was relatively cheap, seemingly arid, and remotely sequestered from much of the world.

Once the land was purchased and escrow was closed, his associates spent their Sabbath days making 'improvements' on the property.

First came three 10,000 square foot bi-level homes. Then the limestone fields were plowed and transformed into fertile farmland. And from that quarried limestone a temple was built -- one that seemingly ascended into the heavens.

That was the genesis of what became the YFZ Ranch -- a 1,691-acre self-sustaining religious enclave of the Fundamental Latter-Day-Saints Church, also known as the FLDS Church, the Mormon sect that practices polygamous marriage.

And how self-sustaining are they? How about this?

A cheese factory. A grain silo. A commissary. A sewage treatment plant. Dormitories for large polygamous family units. And get this: watch towers with sentries and infrared night vision cameras monitoring their gated entries, and ten-foot-high compound walls topped with spikes.

Sounds a lot like San Quentin, doesn't it?

It was at the YFZ Ranch that an anomynous tip of alleged sexual abuse, including underage girls married off to older men and statuatory rape resulting in "children having children," led to the unprecedented action taken by Texas child welfare agencies and law enforcement entities in where 416 children were taken into protective custody. As I write this, Texas authorities are now subjecting these children in custody to genetic testing as to determine their paternity.

Needless to say, the self-righteous and self-important pundits are having a field day on the cable news channels, pointing their fingers at law enforcement for their laxity in vigorously going after those who took advantage of the law and used it to their own advantage:

But what was particularly unsettling and alarming was the demeanor and behavior of the mothers still residing on the YFZ Ranch. Anyone possessing a brain stem could easily read between the lines and sense something's quite amiss:

To see and to hear these women -- intimidated, living in fear, and rendered so unable to think for themselves or to speak up for themselves with clarity and honesty, as if they've programmed like Moonies and transformed into Stepford wives marching in lock-step with the cult's leadership -- is at once heartbreaking, pathetic and beyond all comprehension. There is something particularly disturbing in all of this -- particularly since there were allegations of sexual abuse, incest and God-knows-what else by those who either fled these compounds out of fear for their own personal safety, or were cast out for some other reason.

What makes this all the more obscene is that state officials -- be it in Arizona, Utah or whatever -- have known, or should have known, that these kinds of abuses were taking place, but have turned Marlee Matlin-deaf and Stevie Wonder-blind to it.

However, such attitudes may be changing. As Faye Bowers notes in AlterNet, Arizona's Attorney General Goddard joined forces with Utah counterpart, Mark Shurtleff, in 2003 to to hold a "summit" with the FLDS communities in the Arizona-Utah border region. It was during that summit they discovered that, since the infamous 1953 raid on a FLDS community in Short Creek, Arizona (now named Colorado City) and the resulting lazziez-faire attitudes of law enforcement agencies, the pair discovered the FLDS sect had "become more autocratic, much larger, and wealthier."

Both Goddard and Shurtleff concur that their renewed focus on the FLDS may have drove Warren Jeffs, the now-imprisoned FLDS leader, to move his select followers to the Texas ranch. In addition to both states having prosecuted Mr. Jeffs and eight other men in the group for a pletora of crimes, six police offices were decertified for refusing to report cases of abuse and one justice of the peace was removed from office.

Likewise, both states have also to remove the FLDS's major financial supports. Arizona, deducing that FLDS leaders misused public school funds, took control of public funding for local schools, while Utah appointed a private administrator as an overseer of a communal FLDS trust previously controlled by Jeffs.

If the lazziez-faire attitudes exhibited by law enforcement officals in the past wasn't enough, we as taxpayers are being hit in the pocketbook as well: polygamist families -- single mothers with dependents -- are collecting food stamps, WIC vouchers, monthly allotments of government commodities, Medicaid, and even SSI benefits for their disabled children. This is your tax dollars at work, America -- subdizing and propping up a aborrant lifestyle.

Now there are now allegations floating about in the media that the initial call which triggered the Texas raid may have been a hoax perpetrated by a woman from Colorado Springs, Colorado. However -- and this is important -- Texas child welfare investigators have discovered at least ten young girls of 13-14 years of age who may be pregnant, as well as underage children with infant children (read: babies having babies).

Now as an American citizen who is both a Christian and a Mennonite (by virtue of belivers' baptism), I believe in the free exercise of religion. However, and this is important, there still needs to be boundaries as to what is deemed socially acceptable behavior. It's easy to understand why polygamists continue to give the Mormon faith a bad name. This is not about invasion of privacy, or the sanctity of the nuclear family unit, or about strengthening home lives. There are issues that need to be addressed -- particularly the propensity of abuses that takes place within these religious compounds and how they manifest themselves in so many ways.

But there are also the interests of the children: how profoundly impacted are they by all this? What about what's going through their minds even as they been so abruptly uprooted from their surroundings into what seems to be a world so seemingly alien to them? You have to put yourself in their shoes just to understand the bewilderment and confusion they must be experiencing right now.

All this leads me to this question: How can the likes of Warren Jeffs look themselves in the mirror -- if not before Our Lord eyeball to eyeball -- and justify what they have done to so many lives?

Finding socially acceptable terms to express my outrage fails me.

5/23/2008 UPDATE: Just when you think things can't get any more bizarre than they've already have, the Associated Press reports that the state Third Court of Appeals in Austin, Texas has ruled that the state had no right to take more than 400 children from a polygamist sect's ranch, citing that the state of Texas aoffered "legally and factually insufficient" grounds for the "extreme" measure of removing all children from the ranch, from babies to teenagers.

Additionally, the court ruled the state never provided evidence that the children were in any immediate danger, the only grounds in Texas law for taking children from their parents without court approval, the appeals court said. Moreover, the state never provided evidence that teenage girls were being sexually abused, and never alleged any sexual or physical abuse against the other children.

As Texas state District Judge Barbara Walther, herself a former family law attorney, stated in the ruling, "The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the department's witnesses, by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger."

As I have stressed previously, what goes on within the confines of the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas needs to be explored and investigated further. The welfare of the children needs to be considered, and the polygamist practices of the FLDS cult is something that should give cause for concern.

Sadly, Ellen Goodman painfully points out in, "During the Vietnam War there was a phrase that came to symbolize the entire misbegotten adventure: "It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it." It was said at first with sincerity, then repeated with irony, and finally with despair...I have heard similar thoughts in the weeks since Texas authorities invaded a ranch in Eldorado and rounded up hundreds of children from the polygamous sect of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Did they traumatize the children in order to protect them? Did they shatter their lives to rescue them?" She went on to conclude, "But in the end, what we have on that ranch in Eldorado is not a lifestyle. It's a pedophile ring. If we cannot rescue children from that, we've already destroyed their village."

Let's call it as we see it for what it truly is. Once we do, let's leave it at that.

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