SAN ANTONIO Mental health workers sent to help care for the women and children removed from a polygamist sect's West Texas ranch are criticizing Child Protective Services, saying the state's decision to seek custody of the children was unnecessary and traumatizing.
In a set of unsigned written reports made at the request of their regional governing board, workers with Hill Country Community Mental Health-Mental Retardation Center said that the CPS investigation of suspected child abuse and its decision to seek state custody of all 464 children punished mothers who appeared to be good parents of healthy, emotionally normal kids, the San Antonio Express-News reported for its Sunday editions.
"The mothers are incredibly loving and patient with the children. The children were well-socialized and well-behaved and interacted willingly and happily with us," one wrote.
Another wrote, "The children were sweet and well-mannered upon our arrival. They obeyed their mothers and appeared to be healthy and well-nourished. They had none of the traditional withdrawal common in abused children."
A board member provided the newspaper copies of the nine reports by MHMR employees. The reports reveal varying degrees of anger toward the state's child welfare agency for removing the children from their community, separating them from their mothers or for the way CPS workers conducted themselves at the shelter.
A sexual abuse complaint prompted an April 3 search of the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, a compound built to house members of a breakaway sect called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Children were swept from the ranch and placed in a shelter in San Angelo's coliseum before they were sent later that month to foster care facilities across the state.
"The entire MH support staff was 'fired' the second week; we were sent home due to being 'too compassionate,"' one report stated.
The state has said that enough evidence of "spiritual marriages," pregnancy and childbirth by underage girls at the ranch exists to seek permanent removal of all the children from their parents because of the risk of child abuse.
In order to respond to the allegations, CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins asked for a list of written questions and replied with a two-sentence e-mail Thursday: "We have received no complaints from Hill Country MHMR. However, we will be looking into what are obviously very serious allegations, and sharing these allegations with other agencies as appropriate."
He said Friday that the agency had no further response.
The MHMR workers helped staff large shelters in San Angelo where mothers were at first allowed to stay with the children. Only mothers of younger children were allowed to remain after the first few days.
Many of the MHMR workers described child welfare workers as high-handed, rude or uncaring toward the mothers.
Two of the MHMR workers did report seeing CPS workers treating mothers and children with friendliness and compassion including one who also reported being threatened with arrest for challenging a decision to separate special needs children from their mothers after they were told earlier in the day that it would not happen.
That worker was among three who reported that CPS workers lied to the mothers. Several said the mothers were denied access to their lawyers.
One MHMR worker made a claim almost identical to one appearing on an FLDS Web site after the mothers were given a choice to return to the ranch or stay at a battered women's shelter. Most mothers went to the shelter, "because they were told they would be able to see their children if they did not return to the ranch," the worker reported.
At the time, the FLDS Web site claimed CPS had told the mothers they had a better chance of seeing their children if they went to the shelter. A CPS spokesman called the claim "blatantly untrue."
Several MHMR workers noted the investigatory role of CPS workers extended to the daily life of the shelter and routine interaction between mothers and children.
Shelter directors and CPS spokesmen have previously acknowledged the shelter was chaotic, especially in its first days.
Kevin Dinnin, the president of Baptist Children and Family Services, served as incident commander at the shelter under a contract between his agency and the state. He said he couldn't confirm many of the allegations made by the MHMR workers.
"Some of it is unfounded," he said. "Some of it is accurate, depending on your point of view. Were the shelters crowded? Yeah. But it's a shelter. And yes, CPS workers were taking notes and listening. Yes, they were always around. I'm not defending CPS, but it's hard to give people privacy in a shelter."
He said that better communications could have reduced tensions between CPS and the MHMR staff.
Dinnin said he remembers an MHMR staffer making announcements at the shelter that contained misinformation to a group of FLDS women. He asked the staffer to leave, and a Department of Public Safety trooper escorted her out.
The written statements were given to the Hill Country MHMR board anonymously because the workers had signed agreements not to disclose what they had seen, said board member Jack Dawson.
Dawson, a Comal County commissioner, said the employees had the right to provide information to the board and said his release of copies of the statements to the Express-News didn't violate their confidentiality agreements.
"What they saw was so horrendous, they had to report it to the board," Dawson said. "We were taken aback. I have every confidence their stories are accurate. Our people are professionals, with years and years of service in their fields."