State releases final report; says 275 children harmed

The Austin American-Statesman/October 25, 2009

A Texas Child Protective Services investigation has found that of the 439 children removed from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in West Texas earlier this year, 275 were abused or neglected.

The final report, released Tuesday, said that 12 girls were victims of sexual abuse because they entered "spiritual marriages" between the ages of 12 and 15. Seven of them have had children, the report said. It also said that 263 other children suffered neglect.

But the report does not include specific information on how investigators determined whether each child was abused or neglected, citing confidentiality requirements in state law.

The case "is about sexual abuse of girls and children who were taught that underage marriages are a way of life," said the report by the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees CPS. "It is about parents who condoned illegal underage marriages and adults who failed to protect young girls - it has never been about religion."

As a result of the investigation, the report said, 170 parents have taken classes "on appropriate discipline and the psychosexual development of children," and 50 girls took classes on how to identify and report sexual abuse.

CPS is working with the families of 15 children, including two who remain in state custody, department spokesman Patrick Crimmins said. The rest of the children are entirely in their parents' care. He said CPS has exhausted the options state law provides.

The children had been removed from the ranch owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on April 3 and were returned after the Texas Supreme Court ruled May 29 that the state had overreached in removing them. Meanwhile, the CPS investigation - which is separate from the criminal investigation - continued, and the department presented the findings to Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins, who had requested the report .

"We do believe that their families are now protective of them, and that's different than before April 3," Crimmins said.

Publicly reporting the findings of an abuse or neglect allegation is unprecedented, he said.

Willie Jessop , a member of the breakaway Mormon sect that practices polygamy, said the report didn't prove that the allegations were true.

"We believe it's a desperate attempt to save face for the barbaric actions committed on April 3," Jessop said. "They have spent millions and millions of taxpayer dollars trying to justify what they did."

By June 4, the state had spent more than $12.4 million on the investigation, including costs to place children in shelters in San Angelo and bus them around the state to foster care, including in Austin. Those figures, the most recent available, do not include court costs, regular salaries of state workers and several other expenses.

The CPS investigation began after officials received a report of abuse at the ranch. The alleged victim was never found, and the report was later investigated as a hoax.

"The so-called hoax call is the reason that we initially went there, but the investigation results are only based on what we found at the ranch - not on that call," Crimmins said.

State officials used DNA testing to determine which children belonged to which parents. Marriage records and a bishop's record found at the ranch were used to verify marriages, Crimmins said.

Scott McCown , a retired state district judge, said that in some ways, the specific evidence that was not cited in the report is irrelevant.

"The big issue that Texas has to grapple with is how does it respond to polygamy?" said McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities , which is an advocate for low- and middle-income Texans.

The report said that of the 146 families investigated, abuse or neglect was confirmed for 62 percent of them. CPS identified 124 perpetrators - 30 of sexual abuse and the rest of neglect. In the neglect cases, the report said, parents "failed to remove their children from a situation in which the child would be exposed to sexual abuse committed against another child in their family or household."

James Harrington , director of the Texas Civil Rights Project , criticized the report, saying that CPS's actions should have been reviewed by an independent auditor. "Having employees review their supervisors' decisions will only produce the result the superiors want," Harrington said.

State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran , R-Kerrville , whose district includes Eldorado, near where the ranch is located, said the report "validates many of the things (CPS) was criticized for doing," including going into the ranch in the first place.

He said he'll file a bill during the legislative session that begins Jan. 13 that would allow CPS to remove perpetrators rather than alleged victims in cases that involve large communities such as the ranch.

McCown said that state law already offers an option for removing perpetrators but that it may not be wise to do so.

"If you've got a 13-year-old girl forced to marry a 50-year-old man, and her mother made her wedding dress, then leaving her in the care of her mother and removing her father doesn't necessarily solve the problem," McCown said.

In the separate criminal investigation, 12 male residents of the ranch have been indicted on charges including sexual assault of a child, aggravated sexual assault, tampering with evidence, bigamy and failure to report abuse. Among the indicted is leader Warren Jeffs.

Texas in 2005 raised the age of legal marriage from 14 to 16, in part to discourage Jeffs' group from settling in Texas, said Hilderbran, who worked to pass the legislation.

Cynthia Martinez of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid , which has represented several dozen women from the ranch, said that some of the mothers have moved away from the ranch because they say their children were traumatized by the raid and its aftermath.

"All the families are still taking it day by day and are still healing," she said.

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