Removing 460 children from a polygamist sect compound and then reuniting them with their families will cost Texas $7 million, according to the state Department of Family and Protective Services.
The children were ordered returned to their families this week after the Texas Supreme Court found that the state did not have enough evidence to show that abuse was happening at the Yearning for Zion ranch near Eldorado.
The price tag includes costs from fighting a court battle to retain custody of the children, attempting to determine their parentage through DNA testing and reuniting the children with their parents.
The $7 million does not include more than $500,000 in estimated costs incurred by local governments whose law enforcement agencies were involved in the April 3 ranch raid, according to a budgetary presentation given to Texas lawmakers last month.
The raid was prompted by an anonymous caller who claimed that men at the ranch were involved in sexual relationships with young girls.
The ranch is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a Mormon offshoot that practices polygamy. Child welfare officials said they found a "pervasive pattern" of sexual abuse through forced marriages between underage girls and older men. FLDS members have denied that any sexual abuse occurred and say they are being persecuted because of their religion.Albert Hawkins, executive commissioner of Texas Health and Human Services, told the state Senate Finance Committee that as of May 15, the state had spent more than $5.2 million to provide food, shelter and counseling to the FLDS children. The bulk of those costs included employee overtime and transportation, Hawkins said.
Meanwhile, a state district judge told senators that legal costs in the case had topped $2.2 million. Most of that burden falls on Tom Green County, where the district court hearings were taking place, and Schleicher County, where the ranch is located, said Judge Ben Woodward, according to a Senate statement.
Neither county, Woodward said, has the money to cover the legal costs. "We're at a point now where we're going to start limping along pretty badly," he said.
The court costs estimate, presented to the Senate on May 20, does not appear to reflect the cost of an appeal handled by the Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals. The appeals court overturned the district court's ruling that the children should remain in state custody.
For comparison, $7 million would pay for 137 police officers in the city of Mesquite, Texas, at a salary of $51,060, according to a figure from a job posting. It would also pay for 180 new teachers at the average statewide salary of $38,857 given by the Texas State Board for Educator Certification and would more than double resources available for a state program aimed at children of incarcerated parents, according to the state's budget for fiscal 2008-09. In that budget, the program receives $5 million.
Texas Child Protective Services referred all questions about the costs of the operation to the state's Health and Human Services department. In response to the Texas Supreme Court ruling last week, CPS said in a statement that it "has one purpose in this case: to protect the children. Our goal is to reunite families whenever we can do so and make sure the children will be safe."
The removal of the children was thought to be the largest child protection case in the nation's history. If they had remained in state custody, Hawkins told lawmakers, the estimated monthly cost for their care would have been $1.3 million.
District Judge Barbara Walther, who decided after a chaotic hearing last month that the state would retain custody of the children, also ordered DNA testing to identify parents and children, as child protection officials said they were thwarted by FLDS members who gave them conflicting or misleading information about their names, ages and familial ties.
Those DNA test results, obtained by a North Carolina lab, were beginning to come in Tuesday, the Child Support Division of the Texas Attorney General's Office said. The lab was starting to deliver reports to the court, the office said, and CPS should have them by the end of the week.
Some 599 DNA samples were taken, the office said. Of those, only 36 were of adult males. Now that the children are being returned, CPS will decide how to use the results in its continuing case involving its oversight of the FLDS.
State Sen. Steve Ogden told officials during the hearing that the final costs would probably be more than the estimated figures presented.
"The cost of this operation is going to be a lot more than is on this sheet of paper," he said. "It doesn't reflect what is going on now, and there are huge legal costs out there that we haven't even discussed yet."
He asked officials to rework their analyses of future costs so the state isn't caught by surprise when the next legislative session begins in January.
However, all that is largely a moot point now, as FLDS children were allowed to reunite with their families beginning Monday. Though the state Supreme Court upheld the ruling that the state had no right to seize the 460 children, the justices said that court oversight of the FLDS could be accomplished through other means.
Also during the hearing, state Sen. Bob Duell questioned whether Texas could force FLDS adults to bear some of the costs. However, given the subsequent court decisions, it appears unlikely the FLDS could be forced to bear any financial responsibility.
To those familiar with FLDS history, the raid called to mind a 1953 mass arrest in the hamlet of Short Creek on the Utah-Arizona state line. More than 400 FLDS members were arrested and more than 200 children taken into foster care. However, news photographs of wailing mothers and children won public sympathy, and the raid backfired on then-Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle, who ordered it. In the next election, Pyle was voted out of office.
"For 50 years, [the FLDS] used the Short Creek raid as [a] reason to keep their people secretive and isolated," Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff told the Los Angeles Times in a story Saturday. "We said that was not going to happen again. Well, it has happened again."
Eldorado residents, meanwhile, expressed frustration with the outcome of the raid and the court's finding that the state had no right to remove the children.
"I said from the word go, if there's sex with underage girls, nail their butt," Curtis Griffin, owner of the local fuel depot, told the Los Angeles Times. "But nail the right people. We're going to wind up with a $30 million bill here in this little county because these people didn't have their ducks in a row."