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State may try to seize sect's assets

AUSTIN — With the price care for the more than 400 children seized last month from the polygamist ranch in West Texas expected to reach into the tens of million of dollars, a legislative panel on Tuesday suggested that the state explore the possibility of garnishing the religious organization's assets to recoup the costs.

"That compound didn't grow out of fairy dust," state Sen. Robert Deuell, R-Greenville, said after a Senate Finance Committee hearing where he urged state health officials to determine whether members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), or even the sect as a whole, be held responsible for the cost of care. "Why should we be footing the bill when they've got assets?"

The remarks came after the panel heard testimony that providing foster care, Medicaid coverage and casework for the children from the YFZ (Yearning For Zion) Ranch will likely cost taxpayers more than $1.7 million a month for as long as they are in state custody. The figure does not include the $5.3 million for the first six weeks of the operation or the cost of providing the required legal representation for each child, which is likely to total at least $2.2 million.

The committee, which plays a lead role in drafting and overseeing the state's budget, is exploring ways to cover the near-term costs even though no money was appropriated last year for such an event. Legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Perry's office are expecting that an emergency appropriation will be necessary when lawmakers return to Austin in January, to ensure that the state's bill for the operation are paid.

"We basically need to pay what it's going to cost to do the job right, and we need to know, to the best of your ability, what that cost is so we can factor that in when we're making decisions about other worthwhile costs and needs in this state," said Sen. Steve Ogden, the Bryan Republican who chairs the finance panel.

Law enforcement officers and officials from Child Protective Services rounded up the children from the ranch in Eldorado after an anonymous caller claimed to be a pregnant, abused 16-year-old forced into a marriage with a 50-year-old. Officials now believe that the call may have been a hoax.

But CPS workers have said that the children were in imminent danger of abuse, and court hearings began Monday in San Angelo in which many parents are seeking to regain custody of the children.

Deuell said efforts should be made to determine whether any of the children in foster care are covered by the parents' private insurance. If so, he said, the state would not have to enroll them in the taxpayer-supported Medicaid program.

Albert Hawkins, the state's executive commissioner for health and human services, said it was unclear whether members of the sect have private insurance. He also said that officials have found no evidence that anyone from the sect is receiving any sort of public assistance.

But even if the adults do have private insurance, the children would still likely require Medicaid coverage, Hawkins said, because DNA testing to determine parentage is expected to take up to two months to complete.

Rod Parker, a spokesman for the FLDS, said any effort to seize assets belonging to the sect or to individual members would be an overreach on the part of the state.

"I think my response is to ask the state on what legal grounds it believes it would be entitled to take FLDS assets," Parker said in an e-mail to the Star-Telegram. "This is a country of laws; they cannot simply go after assets without legal basis."