Trauma of family separations may linger for FLDS children
Article Last Updated: 06/06/2008 06:40:20 AM MDT
Edson Jessop comforts his sons, left to right, Zachery, 9; Ephraim, 7; and Russell, 5; after the family was reunited at the YFZ ranch Tuesday. After a two-month stay in state custody and hours in the car driving home, the boys were reacting to the further intrusion of media cameras and an interview. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune)
Their enduring pain may foreshadow the legacy of April's raid at the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas. Though FLDS children were in state custody for about two months, they lost both parents and often, siblings - creating an emotional impact that can linger far longer, according to mental health professionals.
"Those kids will never be the same from when they left - never," said Bonnie Peters, executive director of the Family Support Center, a Salt Lake City counseling agency whose clients include members of polygamous communities.
For many of the children, the disruption of their lives continues, as their families settle into apartments and homes away from the ranch to await the results of a child welfare investigation.
The raid by Texas authorities led to more than 450 children, from infants to teenagers, being taken into state custody and placed in shelters across the state. A district judge on Monday released the children to their parents, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Just how each child reacts to the experience will depend upon the individual, but post traumatic stress disorder is likely for many, said Patricia Merkley, a therapist who runs a Utah support group for women who are living in or have left polygamous communities.
Depending on age and other factors, symptoms may include flashbacks, night terrors, obsessive thoughts, hypervigilance and extreme reactions. A child may fixate on the idea that mom is going to die or something is going to happen to her and she'll suddenly vanish, Merkley said.
Reactions may be exacerbated because they were taken from a rural, isolated and collective family environment into a new culture. They were exposed to processed foods, new toys such as Slip 'n Slide and people who dressed and acted differently.
"That can make them have an accelerated sense of trauma," Peters said.
Dan Barlow was 21 when Arizona authorities intent on wiping out polygamy descended on Short Creek, as the FLDS community on the state border with Utah was then called. He had children taken into Arizona custody then - and today has children and grandchildren who were taken into custody in the Texas raid.
A crucial difference is that mothers and siblings remained together in 1953, he said.
"My little 4-year-old granddaughter there [in Texas] said, 'Mama, they put me in jail,' " he said. "I don't think our children felt that [in 1953] because they had their mothers. You can about stand anything if you've got your mother with you."
After the Arizona raid, Barlow's wife and three children were placed with a Mesa family, then in a low-income housing development, before returning home.
Barlow was exiled from the FLDS community in 2004, his wives and children reassigned to other men. Among them: Sarah Draper, who lived with their four young children at the YFZ Ranch.
Testifying during a mid-April FLDS custody hearing, child psychologist Bruce Perry had warned that children ages 5 and under were most likely to be traumatized by being taken into state custody. He said efforts should be made to keep them with their mothers.
Texas Child Protective Services followed that advice only for children under 12 months, and despite an early promise to strive to keep family groups together, separated dozens of siblings.
Earlier this week, a CPS official said the state will examine what services may be offered to reunited FLDS families. Counseling is sometimes provided for families when a child returns home after foster care, said Marleigh Meisner, a CPS spokeswoman.
As the area public mental health provider, Hill Country Community Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center has notified residents that support and debriefing is available.
"What they do with that on a collective basis is up to them," said Linda Werlein, Hill Country executive director. "We don't knock on anyone's door and say, 'You have to get services.' "
A few residents had requested help after the raid, she said.
For FLDS parents, signs of the stress their children experienced are already evident.
Lori Jessop, 25, said her 4-year-old daughter refers to any one who shows up at their temporary home in San Antonio as a police officer.
Her 2-year-old has reverted to diapers and a pacifier. The children wake frequently in the night and cling to their parents during the day.
Other parents say their children had a hard time understanding they were really going home with them; some said their small ones acted as though they hardly knew them.
During an interview this week, the young sons of Edson Jessop and Zevanda Young hid their faces and told reporters they would just as soon throw rocks at them than talk.
These parents say they know it will take love, patience and time until their children feel safe again.
When Heidi Foster's eight children, raised in a polygamous Davis County group, returned home in 2005 after months in foster care, a long-term impact remained, she said. One child was very angry. Many of them were insecure, wanting to sleep in her room.
The youngest had nightmares that began in foster care and continued for months after the children returned home, she said.
Foster is part of the Davis County Cooperative, also known as the Kingstons after its leaders. She describes the group as fundamentalist Mormons who participate in multiple committed relationships. Foster said her group, like the FLDS, denounces cigarettes, drugs and profanity and encourages healthy, homemade meals.
Returning home after foster care stints ranging from about five to 18 months, all of Foster's children were very emotional, she said. Home had become more sweet.
So had their appetites: a newfound interest in junk food took time to fade. Foster's 3-year-old would cry at the movies until his parents realized what the problem was: he didn't have the candy his foster parents would buy him.
A small silver lining: family's increased solidarity.
"It's funny ... sibling rivalries were gone," she recalled. "They had such a renewed appreciation for each other."