Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Children of Polygamist Sect Questioned without Legal Counsel

There are countless legal issues surrounding the raid of the Yearning for Zion ranch near El Dorado six weeks ago, not to mention the complex ethical and moral questions that have been debated on every 24-hour news channel in America. Where does freedom of religion cross the line into our government’s responsibility to protect children? How do we respectfully care for children and young adults who have previously experienced a secluded way of life? Are there civil rights and liberties that have been violated?

One situation that was discussed last Friday in The Houston Chronicle is the apparent videotaped interrogations of some of the sect’s young women without the presence of an attorney.

Technically, the interviews were led by Child Protective Services and law enforcement just happened to be present as well. One of the legitimate roles of CPS is to investigate whether or not a crime has been committed, and then to alert law enforcement if needed. So, one certainly could argue that CPS was simply developing a case as allowed by Texas law. The problem, however, is that the line seems to have been blurred.

Terry McDonald, a criminal defense attorney and law professor at St. Mary's University School of Law, said it would not be illegal for Child Protective Services to interview the children without parents or attorneys present and to bring in law enforcement officers to assist.

With this in mind, McDonald adds the following:

"I think you could make the argument that CPS is not acting in their capacity to protect children from abuse, but is acting as an agent of the state, as law enforcement. Whether a judge would agree, I don't know."

The central question is – were the officers in the room during taping regulated to the role of “assistant”? If any part of the investigation was actually led by law enforcement, then Texas state law may have been violated, since an attorney or guardian must be present in such an instance.

But, guess what? There’s a catch. Child Protective Services has been responsible for the children’s shelter and food since the raid and essentially has adopted the role of legal guardian. Therefore, a case can be made that all required parties were present after all.

It is unfortunate that so many children are at the center of the controversy, even if most parties involved have the best interest of these girls at heart. And, as it becomes more apparent every day, the courtroom battles are just beginning.

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