A Florida judge has declared two children of members of the Finders commune to be dependents of the state. Judge Victor Cawthon last week ordered two children who grew up in the Washington-based Finders group placed in foster homes.
The judge's ruling was the final act in the state's attempt to sort through the affairs of the secretive group that found itself the subject of intense public scrutiny in February, when police in Tallahassee received an anonymous phone call about two well-dressed men and six disheveled children in a local park.
Within hours, police in Florida, Virginia and the District, joined by the FBI and even Interpol, were on the case. Authorities raided the Finders' homes, confiscated records and photographs, and publicly speculated whether the group was involved in satanism, child abuse or pornography. While none of the more lurid possibilities was confirmed, the Finders proved to be an avowedly private and elusive group of about 20 people, many of whom had lived together since the late 1960s.
Public interest in the Finders quickly centered on their unusual child-rearing philosophy, in which youngsters were raised communally and were left largely to their own devices.
The two Finders in Florida with children of other group members were held in jail for six weeks, then released when a judge dismissed child abuse charges. In March, another judge returned four of the children to their mothers, who had retained a Florida lawyer.
But at the direction of Marion Pettie, the group's founder and intellectual leader, two mothers, Kristin Knauth and Pat Livingston, refused to hire a lawyer, argue for the return of their children or even remain in Florida. They said Pettie told them that since the court had the best interests of the children in mind, they should not participate in the judicial process, according to Paula Walborsky, a Tallahassee lawyer who represented the other Finders mothers.
"Those children should have been returned to their mothers, but they didn't go through the system," Walborsky said. "The state felt these mothers had abandoned their children when they returned to Washington. I saw them with their children, and I know all these women love their children."
Connie Ruggles, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, confirmed that the two children, Ben Knauth, 4, and Max Livingston, 6, are in foster homes. She said their cases will be reviewed every six months. "The judge felt circumstances were not right to reunite them with their family," Ruggles said.
Cawthon had closed the hearing to the public, as is his option in Leon County.
Walborsky said the state presented no evidence that the children were abused or neglected, and the judge declared the children wards of the state for "educational reasons." Ruggles declined to comment on the hearing.
George Wisnovsky of the Jacksonville FBI office said the agency "is no longer investigating the Finders."
The Finders, who announced the dissolution of their group in March, are still together and living in California, according to several people who were in contact with them in Florida. Neither Walborsky nor Ruggles has spoken to group members in recent weeks.