Heidi Mattingly Foster knows firsthand the unique situation that members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church are in as they wade their way through a child custody case that blends abuse allegations with the faith of a polygamist society.
Foster, a member of the Davis County Cooperative Society (also known as the Kingston group), went through a custody battle with the state over 11 of her children that lasted three years.
"They're facing the worst possible thing that could ever happen to them," Foster said of the FLDS parents in a recent interview with the Deseret News. "They're facing permanent loss of their children, and it's really scary to stand your ground."
Foster's case began when two of her daughters with John Daniel Kingston got their ears pierced and called police, claiming he had threatened them with violence. A subsequent investigation by the state Division of Child and Family Services revealed a filthy home, and a judge found both Kingston and Foster had been abusive and neglectful parents.
The case took numerous twists and turns, with details about Kingston's family being dug up, Foster's court-ordered separation from her family, and a teen's claims about a bizarre plot to blow up the courthouse.It also created new ways to reach out to abuse victims within plural families and open more dialogue with polygamist communities.
Asked if she was an abusive or neglectful parent, Foster puts it this way: "I believe there's things I should have done different and things I could have done better. I think every parent would say that.
"I think that even still, there's things I need to do better. Do I think that justifies removing the children? No, I don't think it does at all."
The protracted court fight began in 2004 when state officials filed an abuse and neglect petition regarding 10 of Foster's children. Foster was pregnant with her youngest at the time. Judge Andrew Valdez found abuse and neglect, and after Foster's baby was born, the judge also deemed her to be "at risk" and put her under the court's jurisdiction. Foster got to stay with her baby.
Over the course of the highly publicized hearings, Valdez ordered Foster to live in a shelter for battered women, and arranged for individualized therapy and a special group therapy for abused polygamous women.
"I was willing to move out of my home, but I wouldn't renounce my religion. I refused to do that," Foster said.
The case was transferred to Judge Elizabeth Lindsley after Valdez's son got into a scuffle outside the courthouse with pro-Kingston protesters. In another hearing, one of Kingston's daughters testified about a plot to kill Valdez and state lawyers, blow up the courthouse and kidnap the children. The Kingstons denied the allegations.
Kingston himself had already pleaded no contest to child abuse and served jail time for the 1999 beating of a daughter he had with another woman. The girl had run away from an arranged marriage to Kingston's brother, David Ortell Kingston, who served prison time for incest. That daughter has also filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the group.
Both Valdez and Lindsley eventually ordered reunification of the parents and their children after classes and therapy. DCFS lawyers and guardians ad litem attorneys appointed by the courts to represent the children disagreed. The Utah Supreme Court ultimately sided with the judges in 2007, ending the custody case.
Carolyn Nichols, an assistant Utah attorney general in the child protection division, said the state did help Foster, even if she doesn't recognize it."Heidi didn't change, and she doesn't believe the state did anything to help her," Nichols said. "But her house and her living arrangements for her children are better now than when she started. At least she started making it a safe place for the kids."
There are "500 million things" Foster wishes she had done differently in her custody case. She has many disagreements with how her caseworker handled things and how the courts handled things.
"If we would have understood the system at the beginning, there was a lot we would have done differently and I think it would have made a huge difference," she said.
Nichols said the state has an interest in protecting children from abuse. In this case, she said the state was always portrayed as the "bad guy."
"If the parents will recognize that the state has an interest in returning the child to the parents, in maintaining the family unit they'll do much better than if they fight it," Nichols said. "We're not trying to destroy the families, but to stop the behavior that we find offensive."
But even now, Foster said she still disagrees with how child welfare authorities operate."Somehow, they have the ability to violate rights to a certain extent. I don't know why that's allowed or tolerated. I don't think it should be, but it is," she said.
Foster is no longer under the scrutiny of DCFS, and has become an activist with the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices. She spoke out at a polygamy summit held last month in St. George.
"Before my case, there was not a Safety Net," she said, referring to the group set up by the Utah and Arizona Attorneys General to combat abuse and neglect while also encouraging dialogue between polygamous communities and government.
"Before my case, there were not any therapy groups that focused on our particular family lifestyle for people to go to. There was not the level of communication there is now between the different groups. I've seen a lot change because of what I feel is a direct or indirect result of my case."
In that sense, it's been a good thing, Foster said.
"On a personal level, our family is forever destroyed. We are two people short from a whole family. We will never, ever be the same."
Kingston and Foster relinquished their parental rights for their two teenage daughters. The girls were adopted and Foster said she has not spoken to them since.
As Foster talks, the sound of her other children can be heard playing in the background.
"Some of them will have permanent scars from that," she said of the custody battle. "Some have clingy issues. Others have anger issues. It'll just randomly surface and we'll have to work through it all again."
John Daniel Kingston, she said, is a different person.
Members of Utah's polygamist communities have met with child protection workers in an educational outreach setting. Nichols said she posed a tough question to them.
"You decided that the polygamy laws are such that you're not going to abide by them and you're going to break that law. Well, what other laws do you think you don't have to conform to?" she said. "To selectively choose which laws you're going to conform to is not the way our society functions."
Asked if she believes progress has been made in how the system works with polygamist communities, Nichols pauses and sighs."I know that they become more cognizant, because they educate themselves: 'This is what the state's going to do if you do this.' Well, we don't see the cases that don't go to the hospitals. We don't see the cases that don't get reported to the police. There's so much that we don't see, that because they are in their own closed communities, it doesn't go reported," she said.
The raid on the FLDS Church's YFZ Ranch shocked Foster, but she has some advice for the FLDS families.
"Don't let them walk over you," she said. "They're going to keep pushing you until you break or you push back."
Hearings to determine how the FLDS parents are reunited with their children are on hold, pending a series of court rulings. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is challenging an appellate court's ruling that said the agency erred in removing all 450-plus children from the ranch. Austin's 3rd Court of Appeals ordered children to be returned to 38 mothers who sued over the decision.
The Texas Supreme Court had attorneys staffing the issue all weekend, but no decision has been made, a court spokesman said.
Nichols said that Texas is unique in the sense of the compound-like nature of the YFZ Ranch. She pointed out that CPS has a duty to investigate abuse, and a lack of cooperation doesn't help matters.
"What would you do? It's not like anyone pulled the trigger (in Texas) and decided they were going to go in and take all these kids. They were going in based upon that phone call for a specific issue. What they found just kept getting larger and growing and growing and it was a pretty big snowball," she said. "They had to respond to what they found."
A judge ordered the removal of all of the children, which has become a massive courtroom quagmire. Texas authorities are still investigating whether the initial call that sparked the raid is a hoax.
If the hearings go forward, Nichols expects they will likely become more like Foster's individualized based on family. Foster said even with her 10 children, she felt the system wasn't individual enough."I think Texas is going to see a ton of reform to their juvenile code," Foster said.