Polygamist sect work takes toll on social workers
'It was wrenching to pull children away from their mothers.'
Thursday, May 08, 2008
Terry Secrest lies awake at night, thinking about the women and children of Texas' now-famed polygamist sect.
The Austin social worker is working with mothers from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who have relocated to Central Texas. She says she listens to their worries and answers their questions, laughs at their jokes and respects their faith.
After 10 years in social work, Secrest usually leaves her work at the office. But this case "has touched me a lot more than I ever expected," said Secrest, 54.
Early last month, Texas Child Protective Services removed 464 children from a Schleicher County ranch owned by the FLDS. Officials say the group practices polygamy, encourages underaged teen girls to marry much older men and puts children at risk of sexual abuse. State officials say they separated the mothers and children to ensure the youths could be open about their experiences at the ranch. They also wanted to protect them from potential harm, said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services.
"They were in an abusive or neglectful situation, and we want to make sure they were going to be safe while we continue with the investigation," he said.
The operation, which was the largest removal of children in Texas history, has touched people across the state. At one point, more than 700 state child welfare workers were assigned to the case. That doesn't include the scores of lawyers, therapists and social workers from other state agencies and nonprofits.
Experts say many of those professionals may be suffering from secondary traumatic stress, a condition that affects people working with victims of trauma. Symptoms include anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares and intrusive thoughts.
There's no telling how many people working on the FLDS case may be experiencing such stress, said Christine Dobson, director of programs for the ChildTrauma Academy in Houston, which is providing stress debriefing for CPS staffers. But Dobson said she expects to see a lot of anxiety in the people she counsels.
In most cases, social workers have a good handle on why they're taking children from their homes, said Vicki Hansen, executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. In the FLDS case, they didn't know the details of the investigation or what led up to the mass removals.
"These workers are used to going into homes where things are really bad and feeling good about moving children from risk and danger," Hansen said. "This situation is completely different. To look at the mothers and children, you would see love and affection and bonds, plus children who appear to be in good physical condition. It was wrenching to pull children away from their mothers."
More than 100 local members of the National Association of Social Workers have volunteered to help the FLDS families, CPS staffers and others involved in the case.
Secrest generally helps crime victims through Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to low-income clients. The organization is representing 50 of the FLDS mothers, severalof whom are living in Austin to be near their children. Local nonprofits are working to find the women housing, jobs and counseling, said Cynthia Martinez, spokeswoman for the group.
Secrest visits the women, listens to their worries and asks them what they need. She helps find housing and tries to link them with services.
During the first few weeks, the mothers were upset, but calm, she said. But as time has passed, the anxiety level has risen, Secrest said. Some of the women are showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as having flashbacks of the raid on their ranch, she said. The women have no idea when — if ever — they will be permanently reunited with their children.
"There are so many unknowns right now," Secrest said. "Usually you know what to expect, but in this case it's so different."
Secrest says she is troubled by what she sees as misconceptions about the FLDS mothers.
They're not brainwashed, she says. They're not zombies. Each woman has her own personality. Some are funny. Some are quiet. All seem strong and independent.
They don't see themselves as victims, Secrest said. They see themselves as women with choices.
"This is the most delightful group of women," she said. "You can't put on TV or in the paper how individually funny they are, how kind and generous. They are very, very nice women. I am amazed they have been able to keep their sense of humor the way they have."
The intense work has taken its toll on Secrest. At night, she frets about the heartbroken mothers. She worries about the kids. She fears that their mother-child bond has been damaged.
Secrest has turned to her peers and co-workers for support. Her family, friends, two dogs and two cats provide a healthy distraction, she said.
And though she doesn't have much contact with the CPS workers who are working with the children, she says, "It's an emotionally charged situation, no matter which role you're playing."
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