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Polygamist sect: What to do with the children?

“Talk about a reversal of fortune,” said Andrew Murr in Newsweek.com. In early April, Texas authorities seized 468 children from a polygamist sect, amid sensational charges that sex abuse was commonplace inside the group’s compound and that underage girls were being forced to bear children by men more than twice their age. But last week, an appeals court ruled that the state had failed to justify its “mass removal” of children with solid evidence that they were in “immediate danger.” Most striking, the court rejected the state’s claim that all the children of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints essentially lived in a single “household” and under a single “umbrella of belief.” Though the court did not order the children’s immediate release from foster care, it raised the prospect that many could start reuniting with their families in days. Texas child-welfare officials have appealed.

A case like this is precisely “why we have courts,” said Neil Steinberg in the Chicago Sun-Times. When this story first broke, I stifled my discomfort over the disturbing image of state authorities forcibly removing children from their homes. After all, “this was a cult, where the ladies had these strange, swept-up hairstyles” and in which an authoritarian patriarchy imposed its primitive worldview. But the court reminded us that for the government to take such an “extreme” step, there must be actual evidence. “Bad things may have happened, but bad things happen in every neighborhood, and the cops don’t sweep in and seize the children on the entire block.” The point is, even well-intentioned officials must follow the law, said Dahlia Lithwick in Slate.com. “You don’t get to cut corners in the interest of grand symbolic gestures, even when the grand symbolic gesture is that incest, abuse, and polygamy have no place in America.”

Stopping child abuse is no symbolic gesture, said Daphne Bramham in The Vancouver Sun. Inside this breakaway Mormon sect, “girls are taught from birth that they are to be the servants of men—their fathers, their husbands, their prophets.” The boys, meanwhile, “face the very real prospect that soon after puberty they will be forced out of the community”—a “culling” that enables each man to take at least three wives and thus “reach the highest realm of heaven.” By any standard, treating minors like chattel is inherently abusive and destructive. If the law doesn’t already prohibit this kind of child rearing and family structure, then legislators should change the law, rather than leave these children to their fate.

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