The events being played out at the Texas polygamist Yearning for Zion ranch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints sect unearths a failed child welfare system—and our failure to protect girls from sexual violence.
In early April, Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services removed all 468 children from the compound on the grounds that the children were in danger of being sexually and emotionally abused. The state’s blunt removal of the children from their mothers, and placement of the children in foster care, is sadly demonstrative of how some child welfare authorities respond to complex situations of family violence and trauma.
For many years, child welfare workers removed children from mothers who were being battered, arguing that such mothers could not protect their children from the abuser. The routine separation of children from battered mothers lacked a thoughtful analysis of how the children needed their mothers, how battered mothers did try to protect their children from abuse, and how the family as a whole experienced violence and needed support, intervention, and healing.
After a series of court cases and research on best practices for families in domestic violence circumstances, some state child protective services have recrafted their interventions to families where the mothers are abused to give mothers the help to heal and stabilize—with their children. In this way, the family as a whole is helped and the batterer rather than the battered mother is held accountable for the abuse. But Texas’ Child Protective Services in the Yearning for Zion case failed to demonstrate a deliberate, thoughtful intervention.
Why didn’t Child Protective Services explore whether the mothers were also being sexually abused? Instead of the indiscriminate removal of the children from their mothers, what if the caseworkers went a step further to explore whether there were generational experiences of sexual violence, shared by the mothers and daughters, that both needed to heal from? Especially since some of the mothers were also the very girls victimized by the sexual violence that the child welfare department tried to rescue them from.
But what is most disturbing is that these children are now being returned to the abusers and community that legitimizes sexual violence against girls as normative. The Texas Supreme Court ruled that the state’s Child Protection Services, despite the presence of teenage pregnant girls and teenage mothers, lacked the evidence of sexual abuse to remove all 468 children from the compound.
What if the Yearning for Zion compound engaged in the use and sale of crack cocaine, or included a methamphetamine lab on its property? Would the court of law or public opinion allow children to return to such a home? Yet girls are being returned to a home where statutory rape occurs, by court order and against the silent backdrop of public opinion. Do we construe sexual violence against our girls to be less criminal?
The Child Welfare system did not protect these girls from the threat of violence. They conducted a sweeping removal of the children, without critically examining the ways in which the mothers were also victims of sexual violence, and without regard to the real threat of the abusers. But the court of law and public opinion are also culpable. No girl should be allowed to return to the compound, where potential abusers still reside.
The Texas Supreme Court should have insisted that the girls not be returned to a community that sanctions, encourages, and ritualizes statutory rape and sexual violence. The District Court Judge who presided over the conditions for reunification of the families should have required that the mothers and children receive support and counseling for sexual abuse as a condition for reunification, and that the abusers be held accountable for their actions. And we as the public must name what sexual violence is—and not allow violence against girls to be rendered acceptable. Our daughters deserve at least that.
Malika Saada Saar, M.Ed, JD, is the founder and executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a national legal and policy organization that advocates for justice, dignity, and reform for vulnerable families.