Monday, April 21, 2008

What We're Not Talking About, Part I: Other Issues With the FLDS

FLDS founding patriarch Rulon Jeffs with his last two wives
-- sisters Edna and Mary Fischer -- on their wedding day.

He received the pair as a 90th birthday present.

-- by Sara

So far, the wall-to-wall news coverage of the state of Texas's raid on the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints compound in Eldorado, TX has been focused on just a couple of narratives. The first, of course, is the state's dogged and thorough -- and long overdue -- attempt to prove that the church's young women have been systemically sexually abused by the men of the group; and that this abuse is not just rare, but rather an inherent and accepted feature of the group's social order.

The other is the cultural curiosity of the sect's women in general. We see them, looking like they just walked out of the 1890s in their bizarre high hairdos, pastel prairie dresses, and sturdy shoes, and wonder how such a group of fossils (let alone tens of thousands of them) could still exist in modern America. It makes for great TV; but I often look at these women (most of whom have never watched TV in their lives), and feel like they're lambs being dragged out in front of media wolves they've never learned to recognize or fear. In a world when all of us seem to be in permanent rehearsal for our own 15 minutes of fame, these women are so unprepared for all this that they're downright fascinating.

These are the two current storylines the media is focused on -- at least, so far. In time, though, if the reporters and investigators stick around, they might find other things to talk about. A careful reading of Daphne Bramham's excellent The Secret Lives of Saints reveals that there are plenty of other questions we should be asking about the FLDS -- and months worth of stories we're not hearing about right now, but which need to be discussed and generally understood if the country is going to deal with the group appropriately and effectively.

And the country will be dealing with it -- probably for quite some time to come. Throughout its 60-year history, the FLDS has dealt with prosecution (or persecution) by seeding itself into new states, laying down roots for new communities that it can migrate to. (Eldorado itself started out as one of these.) New compounds are coming together now in Idaho and South Dakota; and there are rumors of others being staked out in Colorado and Nevada as well. Hildale/Colorado City may have been effectively taken over by the state of Utah, and Eldorado is in crisis; but with somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 adherents, this is a group that's not going to pass from the American scene any time soon.

One of the things we need to understand is just how the FLDS managed to stay so far under the radar for so long -- and what twisted consequences were allowed to follow from that lack of oversight. Bramham shows that they did a stunningly effective job of building their own self-sufficient infrastructure of community institutions -- hospitals, police forces, courts, financial trusts, schools, and employers -- that allowed the church to function without interacting with the outside world any more than necessary. Most of the group's institutions were designed to mimic and supplant outside authority well enough to keep the group (and especially its treatment of women and children) hidden from the prying eyes of outsiders. And, for 60 years, those who were responsible for providing higher-level oversight for all these institutions have almost always been somehow induced to look the other way.

In the existing FLDS communities in Utah and Arizona, state authorities have already begun investigations on many of these fronts -- not least because they are the stuff on which further legal battles, and the future of the sect, may turn. However, keeping the FLDS at bay in the years ahead will require county, state, and professional authorities everywhere in North America to stop averting their eyes, stay on their toes, and show a strong willingness to challenge these attempts to build this kind of sheltering infrastructure.

And there are other, less obvious reasons we need to be keeping an eye on them, too. Here's the first half of my motley list -- a few assorted areas of interest I'd be poking at more deeply, along with questions I'd be asking, were I a New York Times front-pager, a TV talking head, or a public official in any county or state where the FLDS has set up camp. The list is long, so I'll discuss a few today, and then follow up with the rest by Wednesday.

For-Prophet Health Care
FLDS communities put a priority on providing as much health care inside the community as possible, so they're not dependent on outside medical professionals. (To this end, pregnant mothers have often been sent to Hildale or Bountiful in their last months, so they can be attended by the FLDS midwives there.) Hildale/Colorado City has its own hospital -- built partly with public funds -- that has employed only doctors and nurses who have pledged their first loyalty to the Prophet.

As a result, the group's women and children get much of their primary care from people who feel no accountability to established medical standards of practice, state record-keeping requirements, or any of the existing mandated reporter laws. (Most people in these communities have no idea these laws even exist.) The spotty record-keeping that results is why the state of Texas has made the wise decision to do DNA testing on all the kids: it cannot be taken for granted that their birth certificates are accurate (or, in some places, exist at all).

The FLDs has also co-opted mental health services into another form of wife abuse. In Hildale/Colorado City, FLDS doctors have proven quite willing to declare unhappy women crazy. Daphne Bramham found that up to a third of FLDS women are on anti-depressants; and that women who are express acute dissatisfaction with the life have often been committed to mental hospitals in Arizona by the community's doctors. According to Bramham, the fear of being labeled insane and shut away in an institution is one of the most potent threats the community has used to keep women in their place.

Of course, this misuse of mental health care has turned into one non-obvious but critically important cultural land mine for the Texas authorities who are trying to figure out how to deal with their FLDS wards. Along with everything else, they're trying to work with women who've learned to see mental health evaluations as tantamount to an incarceration threat -- are thus predisposed to regard gentile doctors or social workers as a mortal enemy. It's not making things easier.

Based on this long history, counties and states that find themselves hosting FLDS compounds need to be keeping a close eye on how these communities manage health care. Who provides it? Are they keeping good records? Are they following the law? Do they adhere to accepted standards of care? Are they holding the line as our first line of defense against child abuse -- or are they helping the community hide its abusive secrets? If the state officials in charge of supervising hospitals and doctors had stepped up and asked these questions decades ago, thousands of women and children might have been spared generations of abuse.

Cops and Courts: No Law But God's Law
Much of the power of the prophets has been drawn from the fact that they historically controlled both the cops and the courts that served the Hildale/Colorado City area. Though these were officially chartered law enforcement agencies and nominally public courts, they weren't concerned with civil law. Instead, their task was to enforce the law according to the FLDS and its Prophet. The people in these communities had no effective recourse to the laws the rest of us live under. They could be arrested, fined, jailed, and have their property seized by nominally "official" cops and courts, acting under full authority of civil government, for violating church laws.

Like African-Americans in the slavery era, women who tried to run were captured by these police and returned to their husbands for punishment -- or taken to the hospital for the dreaded mental health evaluation. The police force's main job is to be the muscle that enforces the Prophet's control of the entire community. When the Prophet decides that a man no longer deserves his home, these are the cops who enforce the eviction. Appealing to the FLDS judges has been useless: due process as we understand it doesn't even enter into the conversation.

There is progress on this front. The state of Utah began to move against the Hildale police force in 2005, revoking the certification of its polygamous chief. Sam Roundy admitted that he'd investigated over 25 sexual abuse cases in the past decade -- including one that involved the rape of an eight-year-old -- and never reported it to child protection authorities. (He pleaded ignorance of all mandated reporter laws.) However, Roundy was replaced with another polygamous officer who immediately sent Warren Jeffs a letter pledging his loyalty, and I found no word that he's left office since. Later that year, the Utah Supreme Court also disbarred the local polygamous judge, which paved the way for reform of the local courts.

But the Saints are now in many places besides Utah; and officials in these other states shouldn't be surprised if they try to hijack cops and courts and replicate this system wherever they go. In Utah, decades of failure to attend to this effectively deprived tens of thousands of people of their civil rights. It can't be allowed to happen again.

Death Among the FLDS
These communities also bury their own dead (and at least one has its own crematorium), which opens the way to record-keeping anomalies with death certificates -- and ensures that no questions will ever be asked, and no autopsies will ever be performed. Given the genetic instability and volatile control issues within this group, it may not be wise for them to have the means to dispose of dead bodies without official oversight. We need to be asking questions about who's in their cemeteries and crematoria, how they got there, and what kinds of records are being kept.

The Fatal Flaw: Inbreeding Takes Its Toll
One of the most striking things about the FLDS is that certain surnames -- Jeffs, Blackmore, Fischer, Jessop, Barlow, Steed -- occur over and over again. In a community of over 40,000 people -- many of whom share fathers, grandfathers, or uncles -- the degree of blood relationship between any two people is likely to be very close indeed. In fact, over half the people in Hildale/Colorado City are blood relatives. So it's not surprising that, starting in 1980, the tragic results of three generations of tight inbreeding began to appear.

That was the year the first Colorado City child was diagnosed with fumarase deficiency -- a genetic disease so rare that only a handful of cases had ever been diagnosed worldwide. The disease causes severe mental retardation, seizures, hydroencephaly, growth failure, and physical deformities. Two of the FLDS's old-line families, the Barlows and the Jessops, both carry the recessive gene -- which is now present in several thousand FLDS members who trace their descent to those two founding fathers. By the 1990, Bramham writes, the twin FLDS cities had the highest concentration of children with fumarase deficiency in the world.

There are also signs of widespread hereditary eye problems among the current crop of children, along with evidence that that the community has a higher-than-average infant mortality rate. Arizona coroners recently -- and finally -- got involved in investigating these. But there's plenty more here for public health officials to look at; and it's becoming clear that the custom of close intermarriage needs to end on genetic grounds alone.

In the next post, I'll cover a few more reasons that the FLDS should never again be allowed to operate without close oversight from the outside world.

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