In a surprise move Friday, the Texas Court of Appeals ruled that the more than 400 children seized from a polygamist compound will have the option of a state-sponsored exchange program in addition to foster care.
The new program, developed by the nonpartisan Yearning for Compromise think tank, takes into account parent and state concerns. "What we'd like is for the children themselves to have the option of exploring all their options," said Howard Brown, director of Yearning for Compromise. "Ideally, each kid will be able to decide which option - foster care or polygamist family - is right for him or her."
YFZ children who opt into the program will be placed in a foster care facility. Their peers, many of whom have been in foster care for years, will have the chance to spend a year in a communal family arrangement in YFZ.
"This 'homestay' system really respects the children," said Department of Family and Protective Services director Erin Huffkin. "Plus, 400 is a hell of a lot of kids to put in foster care at last minute, you know?"
The 468 children, who range in age from infancy to 18 years, were placed in foster care following a Department of Family and Corrective Services raid on the Yearning for Zion polygamist compound in Eldorado, Texas. All the children will be eligible for the new exchange program, except for four young women whom the Department recently discovered became pregnant since entering foster care.
"We realize that there are two cultures we're dealing with," said the Court in a written statement. "That of foster care, and that of Yearning for Zion."
The Court's ruling also took into account concerns expressed by the parents' lawyers. "It's just not fair," said Laurie Dowd, who represents Alizea Judd, one of the YFZ mothers. "None of Alizea's children were allowed to make a decision for themselves." Judd, 30, has been denied visitation rights to her twin 15-year-old daughters since authorities determined that both girls were engaged to the same man, a 70-year-old former minister.
Child Protective Services determined that both girls were in imminent danger of sexual abuse through the underage marriage. Both girls have petitioned the state to engage in the exchange program, although one of them is now ineligible.
The state has chosen not to prosecute any of the men at YFZ, most of whom still reside at the compound.
"We really see this as a family issue, between mother and child," said Dowd. "There's no reason to involve the menfolk."
Yearning for Compromise previously had success with an exchange program between convicted enemy combatants at military prisons and Sudanese citizens living in Kenyan refugee camps.