B.C. kids were at polygamist sect

Oppal says up to 15 children were among the 416 seized from compound

The Province, Canada/April 20, 2008

As many as 15 B.C. children are likely among 416 seized from a polygamous Mormon compound in Texas last week, according to B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal.

Given information he's had so far from the chaotic scene in the U.S., "the logical conclusion would be that they're from Bountiful," Oppal told The Province yesterday.

Bountiful is a similar polygamous sect in B.C.'s Interior.

A Texas district judge ruled Friday night that all of the children seized from the Yearn for Zion ranch are at risk of sexual abuse if they stay with the group and must remain in state care.

The ruling came after a two-day hearing featuring several hundred lawyers and two buildings filled with witnesses, reporters and members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect that broke away from the Mormon Church in the 1930s.

Its members believe in divinely inspired, underage polygamous marriage.

Sect members have been ordered to provide DNA samples for maternity and paternity tests.

State witnesses testified that more than 20 of the children involved appeared to have been born to underage mothers. And authorities have said that it has been difficult to sort out family ties because the children have given vague answers since being taken into custody.

Earlier in the day, mothers from the sect, appearing with their trademark tightly-braided hair and full-length prairie dresses, testified that they would do whatever it took to get their children back -- even leave the sect's secluded ranch.

Merilyn Jeffs, 27, said she'd move, get a job and agree to keep her seven-year-old daughter from marrying until she was 20.

"That's a good age," Jeffs said.

Oppal said that any Canadian children being held in Texas are the responsibility of Canada's Department of Justice. The presence of Canadians in the U.S. compound wasn't surprising, he said, given the amount of movement back and forth between the sect's communes.

"We know that some of the Bountiful residents are Americans as well," Oppal said.

The sect also has compounds in Utah and Arizona.

The raid was initially said to have been prompted by a telephone complaint from a minor living at the compound who said her husband had abused her.

Police now say they have tracked the caller to Colorado Springs. Charged with making a false report to authorities is Rozita Swinton, a 33-year-old with a history of making false calls while posing as a teen in trouble.

Despite the source of the call, authorities say it led them to investigate a situation in which some members of the Zion community may have coerced teenage girls into marrying much older men, and that in some cases the girls may have been sexually abused.

"We removed the children based on what we found at the ranch -- based on evidence we found of sexual abuse of young teen girls and a pattern of grooming these girls," said Shari Pulliam, spokeswoman for Texas Child Protective Services.

A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said Ottawa is waiting for citizenship confirmation, and that protective-services officials in Texas have been offered assistance for any Canadian children. -- with files from News Services.

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