Their own words doomed many of the children of Mount Carmel last spring.
Despite reports to authorities from former Branch Davidians that cult leader Vernon Howell whipped babies until their bottoms bled and had sex with girls as young as 12, the Waco office of the Department of Protective and Regulatory Services said last spring that it found no evidence of child abuse.
How was that conclusion reached?
Largely by talking to the children themselves.
“Our practice is to ask the child about abuse,” said David Reilly, field operations supervisor for Protective Services. “If we don’t get an affirmative statement from the child, we don’t have much. You can’t force a child to take a medical exam. You have to start off with a statement from the alleged victim.”
Protective Services visited Mount Carmel, the Branch Davidian compound 10 miles east of Waco, three times between February and April of 1992. In turn, Howell, his legal wife, Rachel, and their children visited the agency’s Waco office.
A packet received in February 1992 containing allegations against Howell initiated the investigation, said Bob Boyd, director of the Waco office.
Case workers went to Mount Carmel specifically to talk to one child, apparently Cyrus Howell, although child service workers will not say.
Former cult members have reported that Howell abused his son, once locking him overnight inside a garage in Pomona, Calif., after telling him it was full of rats that like to gnaw on boys.
While at Mount Carmel, Protective Services workers took the opportunity to talk to other cult children, asking “open-ended” questions calculated to entice responses, Boyd said.
In all, they talked to 10 to 15 children, Boyd said.
“Every child we came across, we questioned,” he said Friday.
Some, but not all
But they talked to only a fraction of the children staying at the compound. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, 17 children died in the April 19 fire that engulfed Mount Carmel. Howell had previously released 21 children, none of them his own.
Protect Services may have seen only the children Howell wanted them to see.
Although Boyd denies the claim, a spokesman for the McLennan County Sheriff’s Department told the Tribune-Herald for its series, “The Sinful Messiah,” that Protective Services in Waco called ahead before at least two visits.
David Jewell — who went to a Michigan court to get his daughter, Kiri, out of the Branch Davidians — questions Protective Services’ methods.
“It is my understanding that when they made their visits, those visits were pre-announced,” he said. “If that’s the case, it is not unreasonable to assume that they would not have been given access to anyone could have provided them with damaging information.
“I know for a fact that in other circumstances when the compound was visited by the media, portions of the group, including women and children, were sent out of the compound.”
A psychiatrist working with the children who left Mount Carmel said it may not have mattered if Protective Services talked to all the children in the compound — if they talked to them there.
Dr. Bruce Perry, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, said it would have been almost impossible to get truthful answers at Mount Carmel.
“My sense is that there was a lot of censoring,” Perry said. “It’s clear these kids knew that they were being evaluated by outsiders. I’m sure that if there were things to disclose, they were not going to be in a position to do that . . . That was not the setting that people were going to disclose a lot of things . . .”
Perry’s report on the children confirms many of the claims made by former cult members — including the charge Howell had sex with underage girls. There was “clear acknowledgement” by the children that girls as young as 11 were ready for sex, Perry said.
Sex with Vernon Howell.
“I believe someone is having sex with someone who is 12, that’s abuse,” Perry said. “Absolutely, it’s abusive and emotionally destructive.”
Perry, though, is sympathetic to what Protective Services faced on their visits.
“It’s easy to say we need another model,” he said. “But when you sit down and think, realistically, ‘What would you do?’, I’m not sure I can come up with a lot of other things.”
Protective Services closed its investigation on the children of Mount Carmel in April 1992. No action was taken. Boyd defended his agency, saying legal limitations prevented it from doing more.
If a child won’t report abuse, a child service worker must have “personal knowledge” of the abuse, Boyd said.
“It takes a lot in Texas to remove a child from a home because of our philosophy of personal rights,” he said.
Reilly, too, said Protective Services did all it could do under the circumstances.
“The system was not built for Mount Carmel,” he said. “It was built for families.”
Closing the case didn’t mean that case workers thought life was idyllic at Mount Carmel. Protective Services’ officials said. Far from it. What they saw frightened them.
Apocalypse and guns
Law enforcement sources told the Tribune-Herald that the children reported a coming apocalypse, and boys talked of longing to grow up so they could have a “big gun.”
Stewart Davis, a public information officer, said Protective Services wasn’t giving Howell a clean bill of health.
“We were saying we were not able to validate the report of suspected abuse,” Davis said. “We’re not saying it didn’t happen. We’re just saying we were not able to validate it.”
Manpower limitations also entered into the length of the investigation, although Boyd refused to blame staff size. But Reilly said case workers get one or more cases every day. You have to make a decision about a case and go on, he said.
Taking along an expert on sexual abuse might have helped Protective Services workers faced with a closed society like a cult, said Pat Schene, director of the children’s division of the American Humane Association in Denver.
Difficult to identify
Spotting sexual abuse is hard even for experts, Schene said.
“It’s not something the average child service worker can do,” she said. “The best hope for a child is to take someone who is trained well enough to see if the child is in danger.
“In cults there is a level of brainwashing within the community,” she said. “It might not be obvious that something is endangering the children. The children themselves might not think what they’re experiencing is remarkable. They don’t have other frames of reference.”
Schene said case workers also can consult ex-cult members or interview the children outside of their home to get at the truth.
Boyd said no ex-cult members were contacted by Protective Services.
But a young ex-cult member had her father call Protective Services last summer, according to her father.
Jewell said he called Protective Services on behalf of his daughter, Kiri, then 11. She wanted to report that two girls at Mount Carmel had been targeted as so-called “wives” by Howell.
By that time, Michigan judge Ronald Taylor had ordered Sherri Jewell to keep Kiri away from Howell.
Sherri Jewell returned to Mount Carmel and never saw her daughter again.
Protective Services’ state office, though, issued a press release saying the agency received no information after April 1992 concerning the safety of the children of Mount Carmel.
Futile return trips
But a child service worker said Friday that no action would have been taken by Protective Services if workers talked to the two named girls during their spring visits to Mount Carmel. Making a return trip would have been looked at as futile, she said.
Eventually, the law requires a child to save himself, Reilly said.
“People thing we can just swoop in and take the children out of somewhere based on suspicion and a gut-level feeling,” he said. “They’re wrong. We can’t do that.”
Does the system need to change? Or does society?
“I think simply going in and talking to children may not be enough,” Perry said. “Particularly, unless you can talk to them in the right context, in a situation where they really do feel safe, protected and comfortable.
“We need to have a capacity to be pro-active. That’s hard to do right now. The pervasive view in our culture about children is that they’re property,” he said.
Jewell, who knows his daughter could easily have died at Mount Carmel along with her mother, called for a change.
“It’s painfully obvious that the laws need to be examined,” he said.
But dealing with cults is a new field, Schene said. It will take time for the law to change.
“I personally don’t know of anyone who works in the area of how you intervene in situations involving a cult,” she said. “Fortunately it doesn’t happen that much. I do know of other cases where children have had to be removed from their homes.
“There are well-known cases of removing children from the homes of Christian Scientists. It’s not a cult, but it is a religion that encourages parents to heal their children,” she said.
“In that type of situation, where the parents will not cooperate, you have to do more than just look at the child’s home for the basis of your decision.”
Until there is change, though, the life and death of children like the children of Mount Carmel will be told in their own words.
“If you’re asking me do we expect under the present practices, do we think kids are really going to tell us what happened to them, no, we don’t,” Reilly said. “Everybody has limitations.”