Texas report: Kids in sect suffered neglect, abuse

The Associated Press/December 23, 2008

San Antonio - A dozen girls were sexually abused at a polygamist group's ranch targeted in a high-profile raid last spring, and parents neglected more than 250 other children living there by doing nothing to protect them from becoming future victims, Texas child welfare officials said in a report released Tuesday.

The Department of Family and Protective Services concluded there was evidence that 12 girls, ages 12 to 15, were "spiritually" married to adult men in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which runs the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado. Seven of them had one or more children, the report says.

Another 262 children were listed as neglected because the agency said their parents knew there was sexual abuse in the household but did not move to protect their children from possible abuse.

The report, which summarizes the investigations done on all 439 children at the West Texas ranch, was issued at the request of the Health and Human Services executive commissioner, a gubernatorial appointee who oversees the protective services agency.

"The Yearning for Zion case is about sexual abuse of girls and children who were taught that underage marriages are a way of life. It is about parents who condoned illegal underage marriages and adults who failed to protect young girls - it has never been about religion," the agency said.

The report, an unusual step taken to help satisfy expected questions from the state Legislature when it convenes in January, summarized individual investigations and the history of the case. The findings, though shared with law enforcement, are separate from ongoing criminal cases.

All the children from the ranch were placed in foster care in April after authorities raided it in response to calls to a domestic abuse hot line. Those calls are being investigated as a hoax, though a dozen FLDS men now face charges including sexual abuse and bigamy based on documents and evidence seized at the ranch.

"We received what we believed was a bona fide abuse/neglect report. We were required by law to investigate," said DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said of the April raid.

The children were returned to their parents in June after the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state had overstepped in removing all the children when it only had evidence of abuse or neglect involving about a half-dozen teenage girls. Many of the children seized were boys or younger than 5.

The individual investigations, which covered 146 families, concluded that 91 families had children who were abused or neglected. Crimmins said that conclusion confirmed what investigators initially suspected - that girls were being forced into underage marriages and other children were exposed to that harm.

FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop disputed the findings.

"The department has made many allegations that it's never been able to back up, in an effort to justify their barbaric actions," he said. "They need to learn how to say we're sorry instead of trying to justify their actions."

The Health and Human Services executive commissioner, Albert Hawkins, is satisfied with the report, which includes a history of the raid and legal decisions made during the case, said spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman.

"It's easy to forget that when (child welfare authorities) arrived at the ranch, it was a very confusing situation," she said.

Since the investigations, most of the 200 parents have been through parenting classes and signed agreements promising to protect their children from alleged abusers. All but 15 of the children's cases have been dropped from court oversight because the agency believes they can be kept safe. One girl has been returned to foster care.

The FLDS, which believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

The sect's prophet, Warren Jeffs, is among the 12 men charged in Texas, was convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape and awaits trial in Arizona on other charges related to the marriages of the sect girls there.

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