By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Throughout the day, CPS caseworkers testify on the stand that they see no signs that the children in their care have been abused. To the contrary, the children are well behaved, polite and seem well adjusted. I speak with lawyers who tell me how impressed they have been by the FLDS people.
In the hearings that afternoon, the state introduces evidence of a picture that shows Warren Jeffs kissing a 12-year-old girl on the mouth after their wedding ceremony. The state also releases church records seized from the ranch which reveal that in various FLDS communities, girls as young as 16 were commonly taken as plural wives, sometimes to men 40 years their senior.
Although most FLDS members refuse to be interviewed, Dan Jessop speaks to me late in the afternoon outside one of the courtrooms. He is 24 and has one wife, 22, and three children, one of whom is a newborn. The other two, ages two and three, are housed at a shelter he isn't permitted to visit, he says.
As we talk, I can't help but think of how easily I could be standing in his place. What if my ancestors had broken with the mainstream Mormon church over the issue of polygamy, as his did? Would I have left the faith, or would I struggle to believe in spite of my doubts?
"We're just trying to live the way God wants us to," he tells me.
Sitting in the courthouse, talking to their lawyers and to a few of the polygamists themselves, I find much to respect. Like my ancestors, they seem like hard-working folk, devoted to their families and to their religion. I admire their austere existence, their self-reliance and their denial of materialism and modern comforts. In many ways, they are more like my Mormon forefathers than I am, and I wonder if those ancestors were to return today who they would recognize as their progeny.
But I also hear much that troubles me: Warren Jeff's practice of kicking dissenters out of the sect and reassigning their wives and children to other men. The dozens of boys Jeffs had booted out under the pretense of sinful behavior who continued to turn up on the streets of Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, sometimes as prostitutes.
That night I drive out to Eldorado. I arrive at the gates of the YFZ ranch and can see the top of the polygamists' temple. I think of all the work they have put into the place and wonder where they will go next. As I return to my car, I think of something Willie Jessop, an FLDS spokesman, told me earlier that day.
"It doesn't matter what the government does, we won't stop living the way God has commanded us to live. If they're going to kill us, kill us. But they won't drive us out."
I think about my own kids — how I would never jeopardize their personal safety for an antiquated and illicit religious belief that can only be practiced, if at all, by social isolates. And I realize that outside of our shared history, I have little in common with these people.
Although Judge Walther decides that the children should remain in the state's custody, two days after I leave Eldorado, the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin rules in favor of FLDS members, and a week later, the Texas Supreme Court affirms the ruling.
I call Susan Hays to get her take on the decision. "Essentially what the court has done is affirmed the court of appeals, which more or less said, you can't treat everyone with a broad brush, you have to treat them as individuals, you have to present evidence for each case," she says. Which is what the ad litem attorneys for the children have been advocating all along.
I think about the prejudices and assumptions made about Mormons from the time of Joseph Smith to Mitt Romney, and figure that to treat each case without that collective bias makes for a wise decision.
As the story of the FLDS fades from the public's fascination, I continue to follow its legal twists and turns. In June, the state begins dismissing child custody cases, and by October they have dropped all but 72. Only one child, a 14-year-old girl, remains in foster care, and that is only because her mother has refused to answer questions from CPS investigators.
The FLDS have made their own concessions. Also in June, the church releases a statement asserting that all marriages within the sect are consensual and that from now on, the church will not "preside over the marriage of any woman under the age of legal consent in the jurisdiction in which the marriage takes place." The church will counsel families that it won't request or consent to any underage marriage.
Nevertheless, the state continues to pursue criminal charges against men at the YFZ Ranch. In late September, a grand jury in Eldorado indicted six men — five on one felony account each for sexual assault, four on bigamy charges and one for failing to report child abuse.
My life as a Mormon continues. I attend my church every Sunday; I sing the hymns and partake of the sacrament. At home, I read to my children from the Bible and the Book of Mormon. I still have my doubts, and realize my beliefs might seem entirely foolish and a bit whimsical to my secular friends, but they are my beliefs, borne of my history, experience and spirituality.