Leave bad enough alone: the FLDS case gone wrong

Dahlia Lithwick at Slate comparing the Texas raid on the FLDS Church Community with the initial situation in Guantanamo Bay in 2002:

For those of you who haven’t been following the many legal twists and turns of the Texas polygamy story, today’s news of a state appellate court ruling that child welfare officials impermissibly seized hundreds of children from a polygamist ranch over three days in April will be shocking. It seemed an open-and-shut case of child abuse, right? Young girls married to much older men, trapped on a compound, bearing babies. The question was not so much why the state removed 465 children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 3 but, rather, what the heck took them so long?

More recent reporting has shown that the legal apparatus intended to protect abused children in Texas was strained to the breaking point by what turned out to be one of the largest child welfare cases in American history. Earlier today, attorneys for Child Protective Services confirmed that 15 of the 31 “child” mothers placed in foster care were actually adults. One is 27. A 14-year-old removed as a child mother apparently has no children. The state had raided the ranch after a 16-year-old girl called an abuse hotline saying she had been beaten and raped by her 50-year-old husband, but that girl has not been found. And interim custody placements made parental visits difficult, if not impossible. Seized children were not even permitted to hear sect prophet Warren Jeffs’ name. The original custody proceedings had been hasty, chaotic, and confused. And estimated court costs were being projected at $2.25 million (before lawyers’ fees).

In other words, what was intended as a noble effort suddenly got mired down in tricky factual disputes, cultural and religious clashes, and the practical necessity of warehousing hundreds of human beings for an indefinite period of time. If this sounds a whole lot like the Bush administration’s fruitless, costly, and ultimately cruel exercises in mass justice at Guantanamo Bay, that’s because the parallels are hard to miss. In both cases, government actors hurled themselves at a problem with the best of intentions. The prospect of averting just one more terror attack, or protecting just one more molested child, has a way of making all those technical legal details seem trivial. But both cases have been plagued by glaring errors of fact and identification: Names and ages and associations were all jumbled up, hearsay and double hearsay piled up in place of real evidence. At the time, it probably seemed like all the who’s and where’s could eventually be sorted out later. But there were real costs to surging forward ahead of the legal niceties.

Via Alex Knapp at Outside the Beltway who notes that “by ignoring established policies and not doing a thorough investigation…the guilty go unpunished.” I tend to agree. My layman’s sense is that our responsible officials irresponsibly exaggerate the menace.

They think they’ve got such! bad! people! doing! such! bad! things! that the usual rules need not apply, cannot!!! apply!!! When, in fact, if they’d just follow the rules and do what needs to be done, maybe we could more quickly and fairly give the bad guys their due.

  • archangel

    “by ignoring established policies and not doing a thorough investigation…the guilty go unpunished.”

    You said it all right there. The only word I’d add is ‘alledgedly’ before the word ‘guilty’…


  • Slamfu

    People, people! Have we learned nothing from Tom Clancy or Jack Bauer? Sometimes you have to ignore the rules to get things done! Cut thru all that red tape, beauracratic BS and “laws” that just gets in the way of real men and get ‘er done.

  • runasim

    II’s crazy how this has turned out, but the easy solution arrived at in court just sweeps the original problem under the usual rug.

    How would a thorough investigation be possible, when the community in question colludes to keep all facts secret? Just establishing parentage has proven to be near impossible.

    The whole community is comditioned to protect the predatory elders, no matter what. No co-operation can be expected. So, before getting all weepy, I’d like to hear what the alternatives are to protect young girls and boys against forced marrieages and other abusive practices.

    One possible outocme is that things will just revert to what they were before, and everyone will be happy NOT KNOWING.

    Is that realy something to celebrate? Not in my book.

  • EEllis

    “by ignoring established policies ”

    Which of course ignores the fact that established policies are totaly incapable of dealing with this situation, but what the hell it’s easy to find fault sitting in an armchair at home.

  • Slamfu

    Fair enough, I retract my earlier sarcasm.