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BACK PAGE: A civil rights scandal in Texas

Acting on a tip from a frightened girl, Texas police raided a ranch belonging to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, seizing 437 children. A 16-year-old named Sarah had phoned for help, saying she had been beaten and raped by her 50-year-old husband. 

Her calls were enough for Judge Barbara Walther to issue a search warrant for every house on the church’s 1,700-acre ranch. In went the police with heavy weapons and SWAT vehicles, seizing every single child — boys, infants, everyone.


Texas Child Protective Services immediately got to work placing the children in foster homes. Walther rejected an application to have breastfeeding infants remain with their mothers. “Every day in this country, we have mothers who go back to work after six weeks of maternity leave,” she said, though she did not explain what that had to do with removing these particular infants from their mothers’ custody. Walther said she had “made a determination that the environment those children were in was not safe.”


Things must have been bad to break up every family. What evidence did Sarah give when she was rescued? Well, the police didn’t find “Sarah.” They traced those phone calls to a 33-year-old Colorado woman named Rozita Swinton, who had been arrested before for similar hoaxes.


 Most rumours about the ranch seemed to fall apart. The CPS did not find any girls under 16 who were married — the legal minimum in Texas, the same as Ontario. Bruce Perry, the psychiatrist who testified for the CPS, claimed the sect was “abusive.” But, under cross-examination, Perry admitted he had never studied the FLDS, and based his professional “diagnosis” on media reports. He also said that when he examined the children they were happy and healthy. He could find no sign of physical or sexual abuse — but he still testified that the polygamous sect’s religious beliefs were “unhealthy.” Based on that flimsy evidence, Walther held an emergency two-day mass custody hearing, with over 100 lawyers jammed in her courtroom. The parents were obviously all kooks, so why not have a group trial? The media cheered.


Imagine the apoplexy if a judge decided to try “all those Muslims” in Guantanamo in a two-day circus. There are 437 kids in Walther’s holding pen, but only 280 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. And how are the prisoners’ respective religions treated? In Guantanamo, Muslims are served halal meals, meet with imams, and can pray five times a day. Walther permits her prisoners to pray only under the supervision of CPS monitors, who make sure prisoners don’t discusses their custody cases. Mothers are allowed 60 minutes a day with lawyers, and children are allowed just 30 minutes.


But the most grotesque thing was the cattle-style custody hearing itself. That a search warrant dealing with a single, fabricated allegation turned into a mass custody trial is a civil rights scandal. But instead of assessing each child’s situation and giving each family the right to meet the case against them, Walther treated them like ants in a colony. There were literally hundreds of lawyers in her courtroom circus, most in an adjacent room, unable even to get the judge’s attention to lodge an objection. So much for due process.


 The American Bar Association wouldn’t stand for the 280 Guantanamo prisoners to be tried en masse. But there were no harsh words for Walther.


Remember the Branch Davidians in Waco? That raid, too, was based on trumped-up rumours of child abuse. Oh, there’s child abuse in Texas, all right.

Ezra Levant is a Calgary lawyer. He can be reached at ezra@ezralevant.com

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