Sect members less mature than outsiders, psychiatrist testifies

Houston Chronicle/April 18, 2008

San Angelo - A Houston child psychiatrist testified today in the custody hearing for 416 children from a polygamist sect that the group's sheltered environment makes members more immature than children in the outside world.

Dr. Bruce Perry said the adherence by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to underage marriage and underage sex puts all children at risk.

"I think that young girls - 14, 15, 16 (years) - are not mature enough to consent to a marriage," Perry said, testifying for the state of Texas.

Raised in a highly authoritarian culture, girls grew up believing that marrying early and having multiple children was their only option, Perry said. Boys grew up to perpetuate the abuse. Perry said he found even adults to be much less mature and less capable of making their own decisions.

"We found these children grow up to be 10, but they have the thinking patterns of a much younger child," he said.

As the custody hearing entered its second day, state District Judge Barbara Walther said today's session will conclude by 4 p.m., but she indicated the hearings will continue through at least tomorrow.

Attorneys for the sect's children are challenging the custody actions by questioning whether the state overstepped its bounds in seizing all 416 children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch, and not just the teenage girls who allegedly were sexually abused and impregnated by much older husbands.

In what has become the biggest, most convoluted custody battle in state history and perhaps the nation's, attorneys for the children are saying the state failed to use the least intrusive means available to investigate child abuse at the ranch.

"How would an underage marriage affect a 4-year-old?" an attorney representing the mother of a small child had asked Thursday in court.

Attorneys are seizing on the fact that if Child Protective Services investigators have had so much trouble identifying the followers of the church, not to mention how they're all related, can they really establish that anyone was abused?

A supervisor for CPS said Thursday that she learned of five girls who were 16 or younger when they were married to older men, conceived or gave birth.

A girl can marry in Texas at 16 with a parent's consent. Without it, the age is 17.

This case has brought to town hundreds of big-city lawyers volunteering to represent the 416 children. They're pitted against a handful of CPS attorneys, and in the middle of all this courtroom drama sit the 100-or-so mothers in long, flowing pioneer dresses, and some fathers, too.

Even now, two weeks after the raid began, the state may not have anyone's complete identity and is struggling to determine who is related to whom. One woman who initially claimed four children as her own said Wednesday that none belonged to her, Voss said.

The state's effort to keep the children from being returned to the polygamist sect got off to a rocky start Thursday as hundreds of lawyers fought CPS attorneys on every legal point.

CPS officials want the children placed in foster care because they believe all were either sexually or physically abused or were at risk of abuse.

The parents, members of a breakaway Mormon sect, deny any abuse. They want their children back with their families at their community near Eldorado, where they feel safe from the dangers and perceived sins of the outside world.

The lawyers were unable to prevent testimony from the CPS supervising investigator, Angie Voss, who testified that interviews with scores of children over the past two weeks convinced her that underage girls were routinely married off to much older men and sexually abused by them, and that girls as young as 13 had had children.

"My conclusion is that there are children having children, and there is a mindset that it is appropriate and a goal to be reached," Voss said.

It is part of their faith, she said.

"If the prophet hears from the heavenly father that a girl should marry - at any age - that is what she should do," Voss said, referring to the sect's leader, Warren Jeffs, convicted in Utah last year of being an accomplice in the rape of a 14-year-old girl.

He faces additional charges in Arizona of sexual conduct with a minor, incest and conspiracy.

Under normal conditions, a child-custody hearing could take no more than an hour to decide.

But once the decision was made to hold a single hearing for all cases involving the children removed from the Yearning for Zion Ranch, the process slowed to a crawl. Lawyers objected to just about anything CPS attorneys wanted to say or introduce as evidence.

The 16-year-old whose call to a family shelter triggered the raid has not been found. Voss said several girls said they knew who she was and one said they had last seen her in a garden several days before the raid.

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