SAN ANGELO, Texas — Many of the children have seen little or no television. They have been essentially home-schooled all their lives. Most were raised on garden-grown vegetables and twice-daily prayers with family. They frolic in long dresses and buttoned-up shirts from another century. They are unfailingly polite.
The 437 children taken from the polygamist compound in West Texas are being scattered to group homes and boys' and girls' ranches across the state, plunged into a culture radically different from the community where they and their families shunned the outside world as a hostile, contaminating influence on their godly way of life.
The state Children's Protective Services agency said it chose homes where the youngsters can be kept apart from other foster children — for now.
"We recognize it's critical that these children not be exposed to mainstream culture too quickly or other things that would hinder their success," agency spokeswoman Shari Tulliam said. "We just want to protect them from abuse and neglect. We're not trying to change them."
The children were swept up in a raid earlier this month on the Yearning for Zion Ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a renegade Mormon splinter group that believes in marrying off underage girls to older men. State child-welfare authorities said there was evidence of physical and sexual abuse at the ranch.
The youngsters will be kept in 16 temporary facilities around Texas — some as far away as Houston, 500 miles off — until individual custody hearings can be held.
Those hearings could result in a number of possibilities: Some children could be placed in permanent foster care; some parents who have left the sect may win custody; some youngsters may be allowed to return to the ranch in Eldorado; and some may turn 18 before the case is complete and will be allowed to choose their own fates.
Children raised on the FLDS compound must wear pioneer-style dress and keep their hair pinned up in braids, reflecting their standards of modesty. For the same reason, they have little knowledge of pop culture. They must pray twice a day. They tend vegetable gardens and raise dairy cows, and must eat fresh food. And they are exceedingly polite, always saying "please" and "thank you."
In contrast, many other children in foster care have a certain worldly swagger, and are there because they have used drugs or committed other crimes.
Experts, lawyers: Foster care will change them
"These children who have lived in a very insular culture and are suddenly thrust into mainstream culture. There's going to be problems," said Susan Hays, who represents a toddler in the custody case. "They are a throwback to the 19th century in how they dress and how they behave."
Ken Driggs, an Atlanta lawyer, has long studied and written about the FLDS, said that if kept away from their parents' culture long enough, the children may begin to emulate those around them.
Tulliam said the temporary foster care facilities have been briefed on the children's needs. "We're not going to have them in tank tops and shorts," she said.
CPS has sent instructions to feed the youngsters fresh fruits and vegetables, chicken, rice and other foods that may have been grown on the 1,700-acre ranch.
"They don't eat a lot of processed food and we're not going to encourage that," Tulliam said, but noted that if the children want to eat processed or junk food, no one is going to stop them.
Those who cling to the old traditions may also pose another problem for the state — they might run away. Driggs said polygamists' children have fled foster homes before because "they want to go home, and they want to go to people and circumstances they're used to."
The children have been educated in a schoolhouse, using a home-school curriculum, on the compound, and may actually be ahead of public-school students their ages, lawyers and CPS officials said.
Hays and Tulliam said the children will continue to be home-schooled by the temporary foster-care providers instead of being put through the trauma of trying to fit into big schools, where they could be bullied because of their differences.
While their diets, dress and prayers can be accommodated with a little planning, other experts said their emotional needs may be trickier to deal with.
Dr. Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist who testified for the children last week, said FLDS children may be easily taken advantage of by outsiders because of the strict control church leaders have over their daily lives.
People who have left the sect "felt emotionally incapable of decision-making," he said.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.