Arizona, Utah assail senator for polygamy comments

The Associated Press/May 1, 2008

San Antonio - Authorities investigating whether teen girls in a polygamist sect were forced into underage marriages and sex said they are also looking into possible abuse of young boys -allegations that drew a sharp rebuke by sect's members.

Carey Cockerell, the head of the state's Department of Family and Protective Services, told state lawmakers Wednesday that his agency was looking into whether young boys were abused based on "discussions with the boys" and journal entries.

In a written report, the agency said interviews and journal entries suggested young boys may have been sexually abused, but didn't elaborate.

Cockerell also said 41 of the 463 children seized from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado had evidence of broken bones. Some of those children are "very young," he said.

After Cockerell's presentation to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, he sent an aide from the lieutenant governor's office to tell reporters he would not make further comments.

Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the renegade Mormon sect that runs the ranch, countered that the state was deliberately misleading the public to cover up its own errors in the case.

A physician at the ranch, who is also a sect member, said most of the broken bones were from minor falls and that there was no pattern of abuse there.

The state took custody of all 463 children living at the ranch after an April 3 raid that was prompted by calls to a domestic abuse hot line. One of those minors gave birth Tuesday to a boy who will remain with his mother in a group foster-care facility.

The sweeping action in the custody case has raised concerns among civil liberties groups. Individual custody hearings are scheduled to be completed by June 5, but in the meantime, all the children are in foster facilities scattered around the state.

Before Wednesday's disclosure, the state had argued it should be allowed to keep the boys, not because they were abuse victims, but because they were being groomed to become adult perpetrators in the sect. Men in the sect take multiple wives, some of whom are allegedly minors.

After Cockerell's comments on broken bones, a briefing issued said, "We do not have X-rays or complete medical information on many children so it is too early to draw any conclusions based on this information, but it is cause for concern and something we'll continue to examine."

Sect spokesman Rod Parker called Cockerell's testimony "a deliberate effort to mislead the public" and said state officials were "trying to politically inoculate themselves from the consequences of this horrible tragedy."

"This is just an attempt to malign these people," he said.

Lloyd Barlow, the ranch's onsite physician, said he was caring for a number of FLDS children with broken or fractured bones at the time they were removed from the ranch.

"Probably over 90 percent of the injuries are forearm fractures from ground-level or low level falls," Barlow said. "I can also tell you that we don't live in a community where there is a pattern of abuse."

The state has said that nearly 60 percent of the 14- to 17-year-old girls in custody are pregnant or already have children. Many refused to take pregnancy tests, the agency said Wednesday.

Under Texas law, children under the age of 17 generally cannot consent to sex with an adult. A girl can get married with parental permission at 16, but the sect's girls are not believed to have legal marriages.

Church officials have denied any children were abused at the ranch and say the state's actions are a form of religious persecution. They also dispute the count of teen mothers, saying at least some are likely adults.

Cockerell told lawmakers the investigation has been difficult because members of the church have refused to cooperate. Parents coached children not to answer questions and children -even breast-feeding infants -were switched around to different mothers in what Cockerell called a coordinated effort to deceive.

Roberts reported from San Antonio and Castro reported from Austin. Associated Press Writer Jennifer Dobner contributed to this report from Salt Lake City.

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