Girl whose call triggered raid complained of being beaten, officials say

Child agency workers finish search of ranch, but investigation continues.

Austin American-Statesman/April 9, 2008

The 16-year-old girl whose outcry triggered the largest child welfare operation in state history told a West Texas family violence shelter that she was wife No. 7 of a man who choked her, hit her in the chest and forced himself on her sexually, according to court documents.

One beating left her with broken ribs, an affidavit said.

A day after state officials removed the last of the 416 children from the girl's home - the Eldorado compound built by jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs - they still didn't know where she is.

State officials described the compound as a place where girls entered "spiritual marriages" once they reached child-bearing age, or about 13 or 14. Child Protective Services investigators found pregnant teenagers and teen mothers at the compound, said Darrell Azar, a spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees the agency.

"There was a widespread practice of young girls being conditioned to accept becoming the spiritual wives of older men and to have sex with them," Azar said. Working with law enforcement officials, "we determined these children were in imminent danger of continued abuse. We simply could not leave these children in homes where alleged abusers also lived."

The agency Monday night moved the last 15 children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch into temporary state custody in San Angelo shelters, officials said. On their own, 139 women left the ranch.

The raid is reminiscent of a similar one 54 years ago in Arizona involving members of the same sect - the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which broke away from the Mormon church after the latter disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.

The agency's involvement with the 1,700-acre Eldorado compound is over, Azar said, but the investigation continues.

A hearing is set for April 17, when the agency will make recommendations to a judge on whether the children should remain in state custody.

Agency officials plan to request that a court help them determine the identities of the women and children by ordering DNA tests for anyone "who claims to be a parent or is suspected of being a parent" and ordering parents to provide identifying documents such as birth certificates and marriage records, Azar said. Some children interviewed did not provide the names of their parents or identified multiple women as their mothers, the affidavit said.

"We do not know their real names at this time," Azar said. "We need to know about relatives who may safely care for these children."

Such court orders are fairly typical - paternity is often an issue - but this operation is on a larger scale, Azar said.

The affidavit, released Tuesday, revealed new details about the 16-year-old girl's March 29 and March 30 phone calls to the shelter, which she made with someone else's cell phone.

The teenager said she is the mother of an infant child and is now pregnant, according to the affidavit signed by Lynn McFadden, a family services investigative supervisor.

The girl told shelter officials - who passed the report of abuse to the Department of Family and Protective Services - that she had lived at the compound for three years and that the physical abuse began soon after she arrived.

Speaking quietly to avoid being overheard, she told authorities she was the wife of a 49-year-old man she married when she was 15 and that she was not allowed to leave the ranch unless she was sick.

"She indicated that she had tried to devise a plan to escape from the YFZ Ranch by pretending to be ill," the affidavit said, "but determined this would not work since she would not be allowed to take her infant child with her unless the child was also sick."

The girl told the shelter that her husband went to "the outsiders' world," but she didn't know where he went.

Authorities have issued an arrest warrant for church member Dale Barlow, who is believed to be in Arizona. The girl's husband is not identified in the court documents released Tuesday.

An unknown number of men and women were at the ranch Tuesday while authorities completed the search of the 80-foot temple, a cheese-making plant, a school and housing units, along with other buildings.

Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, said Tuesday the adults were not being held, but if they left the compound, they could not return while the search continued.

Church lawyer Patrick Peranteau did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday.

Former fundamentalist church members predicted an uneasy adjustment to foster care. The children are likely the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of those taken by Arizona authorities 54 years ago in a similar raid.

That raid a half-century ago and the one this week pulled children of polygamist families from the only community and culture they'd known - an event that decades later a former community member recalls as traumatizing.

"It was total misery for them," said Ben Bistline, now 72. He was 18 when authorities raided the remote community on the Arizona-Utah line, taking 200 children into custody as part of an effort to wipe out a "nest of polygamy."

Bistline was not rounded up in the 1953 raid, but the woman he married later in life was 15 when she and her seven siblings were shipped to Phoenix, far from friends and family.

Despite the potential new hardships for the children and women in Texas, Bistline said the raid is appropriate if children are being forced into marriages.

"This situation in Texas is a justifiable raid," he said.

But another fundamentalist church member now living in the Texas Panhandle, Samuel Fischer, had a different view of the raid.

"It's religious persecution," said Fischer, who moved to a ranch near Lockney in West Texas with his two wives and 12 of his children from Hildale, Utah, last year.

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