The raid on a polygamist compound in Texas could signal the beginning of the end of a lifestyle that has flown under the radar in America, according to an expert on cults.
The Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints, which operates the compound near Eldorado, Texas, along with other communities around the country - including Colorado City, Ariz. - fits the classic criteria of a cult, according to Rick Ross.
He says there are about 50,000 polygamists living in North America and Mexico.
"The level of harm done by polygamist groups is horrific, and, in particular, this group (FLDS) has a long history of very seriously damaging children through sexual abuse, neglect and physical abuse."
More than 400 children were taken from the Texas compound after authorities received a phone call from a 16-year-old girl, who said she had been forced to marry an older man and have his child. Arizona authorities received a similar call from a 16-year-old girl in Colorado City, but authorities said they had no power to act on the unverified call.
These children come from a "world within our world," completely controlled by the church group, according to Ross."Without television, without newspapers, without all the things that kids grow up with these days. All information, all associations, everything around them controlled by the organization."
The harm done to children by the FLDS church, whose leader Warren Jeffs is jailed on sex charges in Kingman, is amazing, Ross says.
As soon as children reach puberty, Ross says, "they become so much like a commodity that has literally been passed from one community to another community. The child can be married off, her husband can take her as so much property. She is obliged to obey him and submit to him, even if he's violent, even if he's abusive."
The cult expert says, "Out of all the groups called cults in North American that I've dealt with, some of the most horrific complaints of sexual and physical abuse have come from these polygamist groups."
He said the children taken from such groups "are going to need counseling, they're going to need help," adding, "The youngest children will probably do the best because they've had the least time in the group."
Jeffs' group has been funded for years by taxpayers who didn't know it, Ross says.
"Seventy percent of the people in Colorado City were on food stamps, 40 percent of the women were receiving assistance through a WIC (women's and children ) fund."
The group also got money "through state funds, through federal funds which were accumulated for infrastructure within their township."
"When they began to basically clamp down on this group for its illegal activities, it had accumulated assets in excess of $200-million dollars," he said. "So this was a group that grew very rich, very powerful, often through taxpayers' money."
Attorneys general from Arizona and Utah made a significant impact in the last few years when they went after Jeffs, ultimately getting Utah convictims against him for rape by accomplice in arranging marriages of under-aged girls, Ross said. Jeffs now is jailed in Kingman, awaiting trial on similar Arizona charges.
Besides physical and sexual abuse, "there have also been violations of child labor laws, repeatedly," Ross said. "Children as young as 12 working in dangerous circumstances with machinery that they have no business operating."
Ross said he's encouraged by the actions of Texas authorities.
"With the law now effectively going after them, their era seems to be coming to an end."