Now that the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that Texas officials were wrong to remove more than 450 children from a FLDS ranch, journalists should be focusing on what is next in the legal process. The idea being portrayed in some news accounts that this case is over and the FLDS group will be left alone should be set aside because allegations and evidence of forced underage marriages and impregnated minors don’t just disappear.
In fact, the concept that all of the children are headed home to their parents should not be reported because it is highly unlikely to be the case. Some children will eventually be sent back to their parents, but it will be interesting to see which of them do not and on what grounds.
The key for journalists to understand is that all the Texas courts have said is that it was wrong to remove all of the group’s children on a single theory of child abuse. The case for removing children due to abuse or potential abuse must be proven on an individual basis. In other words, Texas officials cannot break-up families because of their religious beliefs.
Here is a nuanced account from The Salt Lake Tribune:
Based on that, the state’s action was too over-reaching, one attorney said.
“Sadly, I think there may be some children that needed to be protected within that community,” said Polly Rea O’Toole, a Dallas attorney representing an 8-year-old child. “But because of the way the department went about it by sweeping up 460-odd children at one time they may have deprived themselves of the opportunity to protect children.”
Willie Jessop said the “FLDS I’m acquainted with do not allow children to be married until they are of legal age.”
For a good perspective on what is next, check out this report by Stephanie Simon and Ann Zimmerman at the Wall Street Journal:
Authorities said they feared that the polygamist families, once reunited, would flee out of state and resume practices that officials consider abusive, such as yoking young girls to older men in marriage.
The Supreme Court acknowledged those concerns. But the majority of justices ruled that the state could take other measures, short of separating families, to protect the children from sexual abuse.
For instance, the district judge handling the case could order the families reunited on condition that they promise to remain in Texas. Or she could insist that men identified as possible perpetrators of abuse move out of the home.
The judge could also grant the state custody of the children deemed most at risk, specifically pregnant girls or teenagers who have hit puberty and are considered ready for marriage in the culture of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Basically, it’s back to square one,” said Jack Sampson, a family law professor at the University of Texas.
He said he expected that all young children and boys would be returned to their families within days, but some older girls might remain in state custody pending individual review of their circumstances and the risk that they will be abused. “The return of all the children is certainly not mandated,” he said.
Two important news angles are at risk of disappearing from the news coverage.
Of course there are those who still believe, as the Texas state officials alleged, that the group’s religion and beliefs justify removing the children for their safety. While that viewpoint is no longer legally sustainable without more evidence in Texas, reporters should not forget that the argument still exists and could re-emerge if the state is able to uncover more evidence.
Secondly, The New York Times picked up the important previously under-reported angle of the harm done to the children through the state-forced separation.
Since the public’s perception of this situation is formed largely through reporting by journalists, it is essential that the reality of the situation is portrayed and not wild allegations by government officials. Just as journalists covering the planning stages of military invasions should never take the words of public officials as the gospel truth, journalists covering the FLDS or other groups should never assume allegations made by state officials have proper legal or evidentiary support. That can lead to disastrous consequences and poor decisions that may or may not be reversible.