Sect members get an earful

Hearing attendees debate raid, abuse, new legislation.

American-Statesman, Texas/April 15, 2009

A member of a polygamist sect that runs a ranch in West Texas was in the hot seat at a state House committee hearing Tuesday when the panel's chairman asked him: Were underage marriages tolerated at the ranch?

The sect member, Willie Jessop, paused and then said, repeatedly, that he wasn't sure - that it would be inappropriate for him to speculate on an entire church group. The chairman, Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, wasn't convinced.

"I just don't believe you, that you don't know the answer to that question," Rose told Jessop.

That wasn't the only tense moment during a hearing of the House Committee on Human Services, which is taking a look at how Texas officials handled last year's massive child welfare operation at the Yearning for Zion Ranch, owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Last April, state officials removed 439 children from the ranch near Eldorado as they investigated whether young girls were being forced to marry older men.

Lawmakers grilled state officials on whether the children - all but one are back at the ranch - are truly safe.

There was also a heated discussion on whether pending legislation unfairly targets the sect.

Hours into the hearing, when Rose called on several sect members who had come to testify, one of them, Zavenda Jessop, said: "It appears that this board is not interested in helping us or protecting us in any way, and so we have chosen not to testify at all."

State Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, questioned whether parenting classes that the state designed for the sect members are enough to make significant changes at the ranch, where a Child Protective Services investigation after the raid at the ranch found a pattern of abuse.

"What assurances can you give us that these children are actually being protected today?" Darby asked Anne Heiligenstein, commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services.

Heiligenstein responded that she thinks the children are safe, though she added that it's difficult to predict future behavior.

The committee is considering legislation by state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, that would tweak laws in response to the case - including extending the statute of limitations for bigamy and increasing criminal penalties for people who fail to report child abuse.

The panel did not vote on the measure, which Hilderbran said is not just about the sect.

But Willie Jessop told lawmakers that the legislation targets his religion.

Darby, a co-author of the bill, told Jessop that the measure seeks to punish pedophiles - specifically, polygamist pedophiles.

Jessop responded: "What about monogamous ones?"

Darby told him: "If you're not practicing these pedophilia acts, then you shouldn't be concerned."

The panel also took a look back at the past year.

Heiligenstein, who was not working at the agency at the time of the raid, defended CPS' decisions - including the call to remove the children from the ranch. The Texas Supreme Court later ruled that the state overreached in removing all the children.

She also pointed out that the protective services agency's investigation concluded that nearly 30 percent of the girls ages 12 to 17 at the ranch had been sexually abused.

"It's what other reasonable people would have done in the same situation to protect children," Heiligenstein said.

Heiligenstein also issued a warning: "You cannot abuse children in Texas and get away with it, even if you are a large, reclusive, well-organized and funded organization that has a great deal of media savvy."

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