FLDS children adapt old ways to new homes
AMARILLO, Texas - Now living hundreds of miles away from their rural Texas homes, some children at the center of the largest child abuse case in U.S. history are asking to bake bread.
They want a wheat grinder and a place to plant a garden. They want to pray twice a day - sometimes with siblings, sometimes all together. And when the spirit moves them, they want to sing.
"They sing very beautifully," said Delma Trejo, executive director of The Ark Assessment Center and Emergency Shelter for Youth in Corpus Christi.
All over Texas, from Amarillo to Corpus Christi, the 464 children removed from a polygamous sect's West Texas ranch are holding onto old ways even as they are nudged into a new life.
The children were removed a month ago from the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and placed in 16 group shelters and foster homes.
The facilities range from those where 90-day stays are typical to the privately funded Hendrick Home for Children in Abilene, where the average stay is seven to 10 years with support through college.
Texas Child Protective Services (CPS) initially said it would place siblings together, but acknowledges that hasn't happened in every family.
Minors with children have gone to the Seton Home in San Antonio, which on average takes in 85 girls and 80 babies a year. Older boys have gone to Cal Farley's Boys Ranch in Amarillo.
The residential pay rate for a basic facility is $38.59 per day per child - which is partly why some facilities are welcoming donations. The rate for an emergency shelter is $106.22 per day.
Under Texas law, parents are allowed to visit their children in state custody. Mary Walker, a spokeswoman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, said supervised visitation is being arranged for mothers.
And fathers? "I believe that in some cases that is being allowed, if they have been identified as the fathers," she said.
But that is happening too slowly for some parents' attorneys. "That's been incredibly difficult since [CPS has] provided names but not contact information for the caseworkers," said Polly O'Toole, a Dallas attorney.
Developing trust: Meanwhile, the children are settling into their new, if temporary, homes.
Directors at some facilities shared general and specific descriptions of how they are accommodating the religious and cultural differences of the FLDS children.
Televisions have been covered up or kept off. Walls have been repainted to cover up hues of red, a color the FLDS consider sacred. And activities are being kept simple.
"We're not hiding our culture, but we're certainly sensitive to theirs," said Ed Knight, president of the Presbyterian Children's Homes and Services. "It's a very slow process of developing trust, but we're not having difficulties."
For now, the children are being kept apart from other youth.
"They are not interacting with the other children," Knight said. "We're limiting the number of our own staff that are interacting with them. We're taking it slow and easy."
The children also are being shielded from media, who have come from across the world to track the raid on the polygamous sect in Texas.
"They just deserve privacy like every other foster child on earth," said Charee Godwin-Smith, director of development at the Presbyterian Home for Children in Amarillo. "You don't want to walk outside and have news cameras in your face."
Natural foods, traditional games: Getting into a routine is the priority.
At the Methodist Children's Home in Waco, the children rise around 7 a.m., eat breakfast and do a few chores such as making their beds and cleaning, according to a recent schedule.
Accustomed to a natural, healthy diet, the children at The Ark in Corpus Christi prefer whole milk, pure vanilla and unsweetened cereal. They've asked to make smoothies of almonds, water, honey and olive oil.
"The children are beginning to eat more now that they are becoming more comfortable at the Home," said Bryan Mize, spokesman for Methodist Children's Home.
For group activities, children at the home prefer kickball, jump-rope, tag, and arts and crafts. At two Presbyterian Children's Homes, in Waxahachie and Amarillo, children have been given chalk, crayons and Etch A Sketches and are participating an hour a day in educational games as part of assessing literacy, Knight said.
Mize also said children are being allowed to worship, if they choose, every day, in their "home" on campus.
Boys ranch: The 72 boys living at Cal Farley's Boys Ranch have come to a place known for giving troubled or at-risk kids a new lease on childhood, but the ranch has never been involved in something this monumental.
The FLDS boys' arrival is "unprecedented," President Dan Adams said. "There's no rule book to go by."
The ranch was already caring for about 260 children, including a handful of girls. Adams said the ranch is licensed to care for more than 400 children, and space and resources have not yet been a problem.
The 1,100-acre spread, 36 miles northeast of Amarillo, is part cattle ranch, part school and part resort. It has its own police; its fences are designed to cordon cattle, not people. But if a child wanted to flee, there would be nowhere to go.
It offers perks, from competitive sports to fishing and climbing and conventional ranch work. Boys Ranch has rodeo livestock and holds a Labor Day rodeo, where students rope and ride for a crowd of 5,000.
The FLDS boys eat, play and live in ranch-style homes apart from the other youth, Adams said. They are excused from the nondenominational Christian church services on Sundays, but otherwise have access to the same opportunities as the other youth.
Texas officials are still trying to figure out how to handle the FLDS children's education. The sect ran a private school at the YFZ Ranch that used a modified home schooling curriculum.
Texas education officials expect to provide the facilities with tools to assess the children's academic levels by this week. Some children may be placed in public schools, which will be in session for another month; others could attend school at shelters.
The fact the children have missed nearly a month of school concerns education officials, but they take their lead from Child Protective Services, a spokeswoman said.
"One of the other things we have to be concerned about is their emotional well-being," said Suzanne Marchman, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman. "There's a point at which their educational input is secondary."
David Miller, executive director of Hendrick Home, said children there are typically placed in public schools and, during the summer, go on field trips. On the calendar right now: a 17-day cruise along the Gulf Coast, with stops in Honduras and Mexico, and a leadership camp in Arkansas.
"We may have unusual circumstances here we'll have to work with CPS on," he said.
"Every day . . . an inspiration": Most facilities said they've had few issues with the children.
"We have seen very normal things, a few tears. We've seen some anger on the part of one," Knight said. "The children are clustering together and supporting one another. It's nothing out of the ordinary."
Said Miller: "I do not know of one child at Hendrick Home that is having any particular issues that are troublesome. Every child I know of is very warm, receptive, loving. Every day is an inspiration."
The FLDS parents, Miller said, can "rest well at night knowing we have a very loving house staff and administration with five and six layers of supervision, 24/7. We know how to take care of children and how to do it well."