Behind The Scenes Of The Polygamists Case

(CBS/John Filo)
Hari Sreenivasan is a CBS News correspondent based in Dallas.
There are some ingredients which can predict whether or not a story will capture our collective attention for longer than average. This story, which pits religious practice versus child abuse, includes several; a society historically filled with secrets that whose members are visibly different from us in their dress and behavior, who have been reclusive and keep secrets partly to avoid the inevitable scrutiny and persecution that comes with disclosure of their practices, involves a layer of forbidden sex, and most perhaps most importantly, that last ingredient involves children.

For the previous week, the media sipped and sucked details through a small straw. We learned about the raid, from law enforcement, the logistics, from child protective services and the prospect of a legal quagmire unlike any that Texas had seen. We wondered how we'd ever get the viewpoint of those affected, how we'd gain access to a 1,500-acre ranch in any meaningful way other than a helicopter ride over the property?

(Frank Gallovich)
That question was answered Monday night as the members of the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) launched what they say was impromptu but seems like an incredibly well-planned press offensive of their own. The night that 51 mothers were separated from their children 45 miles north, and bussed back down to the gates of their ranch, they decided at the gates, they say, to fling the doors open to the media who had been camped out like teenagers waiting for tickets to a concert.

What followed in the next two days was an awesome display of the power of a hungry press; who lapped up every opportunity to gain access to a culture and a place which had been previously off limits. Here they were, just off county road 300, but until now had never taken off their Harry Potter cloaks of invisibility.

We saw mothers crying for their children on the morning news, accounts of being taken from their homes at gunpoint on the evening news, and mothers giving tours of their children's now-empty rooms on the cable networks. We saw them articulate their pain but stumble and struggle to form responses for more difficult questions on whether the practice of plural marriage existed, whether there were underage marriages taking place in their community.

Within the next 48 hour lead up to the 14 day hearings, which would determine whether the state would return their children to them or continue to hold them and perhaps send those children into foster care, I witnessed a public opinion shift ever so slightly. Some viewers began to consider the mothers as victims. While the week prior, people may have been willing to dismiss the entire society and brand them all child abusers, now that there had been these brief glimpses into the worlds of soft spoken and polite women who seemed primarily concerned with their children, there seemed to be a pause to judgment.

In an incredibly short period, this group had learned that the very harsh public spotlight they had so cowered from all these years and avoided could be softened and shone to their advantage. They had even figured out how to play one organization off against another, allowing access to some reporters and networks and preventing others based on how they felt that organization or that individual portrayed them. They have even posted cell phone videos and images of the raid on their website.

I don't think this is a community that will be inviting us back anytime soon. They did it because they felt they had to, that it would bring them closer to getting their children back.

Seeing Red

I wore a red tie on the first day of the hearings and heard from a number of lawyers standing in line around me that it was apparently the color of the devil according to the beliefs of some of their FLDS clients. I didn't think the color of my tie would be the most offensive thing about me, after listening to some of Warren Jeffs' racist sermons posted on the Eldorado Success website.

While I did notice that none of the men or women were wearing any red, in perhaps ironic juxtaposition to their pastel colored pioneer dresses was the lead attorney for the state dept. of family protective services in her dark red powersuit arguing to keep their children away.

The courtroom was a legal proceeding unlike any I had ever witnessed. The Judge was devising a method as she went along because offering hundreds of attorneys and guardians ad litem the opportunity to represent their clients to the best of their abilities, came into direct opposition with reality. There was no way that 416 children could have had a 14 day hearing in anywhere near the 14th day. At first it seemed an exercise in objections from one lawyer after another as they rose from the audience and approached the podium. Judge Walther did her best to allow them their due, considered constitutional challenges, procedural oppositions, questions of method and format while continuing to try and move the proceeding forward.

By day two you could see the Judge's patience as well as that of everyone else in the courtroom wear thin with repetitive and sometimes frivolous tangential concerns that no one but the particular attorney at the podium needed an answer to. What was also interesting is that 416 representatives managed to self organize into about a half-dozen groups representing particular portions of the population; for example one color for boys and girls under five, another for young mothers etc.

Who is who?

One of the interesting comments I heard the judge make was to question the very value of birth certificates in this day and age. There has been concern to the authenticity of the birth certificates for some of these women. One of the mothers, Amy, had appeared on The Early Show with her lawyer with what seemed to be a valid birth certificate from Utah for her daughter Sarah Johnson, which showed the daughter's age to be 18. However, the judge's legitimate question was how do we know which certificate belongs to which child? There is no DNA attached to the document, no fingerprint. It seemed we were watching the bar raise for how humans prove their identity in the future.

A child psychiatrist testified that in his opinion this community had several healthy practices in raising their children, but it was his caution that was heard louder. Dr. Bruce Perry felt that the society was so authoritarian that it inhibited decision-making skills of children at a young age, possibly stunting the development of a portion of the brain. He felt it was so that a 15-year-old from this community may in reality have the emotional capacity of a 6-year-old. That weakness could be preyed upon by the older men who decide when these young women should marry, and is part of the culture enables an environment for sexual abuse.

There was one other tangential development a thousand miles away which pointed to the possibility that the initial phone call by a 16-year-old girl who reported the physical and sexual abuse to a domestic violence shelter, which triggered the raid, could have been false. A woman in Colorado has become a person of interest for the Texas Rangers and was arrested by authorities there for faking phone calls in a separate incident earlier this spring. There have been no direct connections made to this case, leaving people to ponder the possibility that she made copycat calls elsewhere because according to the testimony by child protective services, a number of teenage women interviewed after being removed from the ranch recollect the existence of a woman named Sarah who was young, pregnant and on the ranch a week before the raid.

When I posed the question of the possibility that the first phone call was a hoax to the Department of Family and Protective Services spokeswoman, she turned the existence of Sarah into a metaphor. While the state may still not have found the Sarah who made the phone calls, "there were several other Sarahs" who were in need of help.

Media scrum

I was in the auxiliary courtroom, thumbtyping the Judge's decision to retain custody of the children on my crackberry to colleagues following this story, and as I called CBS radio (whose broadcast beat the wires by a few minutes I might add) you could see the swarms begin. There is no other way to characterize it other than a hunt, a frenzy, a feeding ritual when you see the cameras, microphones, producers and reporters run backwards in packs with arms or sound booms outstretched, microphones hovering inches away from someone's face, begging for one comment so they could dash off to file their upcoming stories. It is when you start to appreciate the nuanced skill of some of your veteran photographers and sound engineers because it is hard enough shooting moving forward, but back peddling at a high rate of speed, keeping a shot composed, and maintaining some semblance of an internal sense of balance as other photographers muscle and elbow into you is a skill. My thanks to David Gladstone and Frank Gallovich on that day.

Getting there is half the fun right?

Why does this story always start with an all-night drive? I was at the gate for flight to Austin for a separate interview and I couldn't leap tall terminals in a single bound fast enough to catch the last flight to San Angelo so I continued to Austin, rented myself an econobox- and tried to balance the need to get to Eldorado by about 330am, and becoming a statisic in the next deer-car collision that I may do someday. I made it to the outskirts of town, found a patch of broadband, pulled over, and emailed in my voice and script with a few minutes to spare. You never want to cut it that close.

Whether it is determined in their 416 individual cases that it is better for the children to be separated from their families and be placed into foster care or to be returned to an environment which may enable behavior that society considers illegal and reprehensible but chooses not to be vigilant about, these children will not be the same.

I've met relief workers who say they've seen kids come out of their shells, and enjoy playtime as if they never had it before. Perhaps this exposure to the outside world will prompt something inside them that they take back to the ranch, if they are returned. However, I haven't spoken to a lawyer yet who has a kind word to say about the foster care system, and I haven't met a mother yet who doesn't sincerely seem to long for her child.