Polygamist Sect Newborn Ordered Into State Custody

Associated Press/May 01, 2008

A judge ordered that the baby boy born to a teenager taken from a polygamist sect's ranch in West Texas be placed in state custody, according to documents released Thursday.

Texas District Judge Barbara Walther signed the order Wednesday giving the state custody of the 1-day-old infant born to a teen believed to be 15 or 16 years old.

The girl has claimed to be 18 and based on a bishop's record used during the custody hearing two weeks ago, she would be 18 now. But officials believe she is younger and placed her in foster care with other children taken from the ranch.

The newborn is the teen's second child; the first is a 20-month-old boy. The father of both children was identified as Jackson Jessop, 22, but state officials say they don't know his whereabouts.

Child welfare officials now have 464 children in their custody, swept from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado because authorities believe underage girls were forced into marriages and sex with older men. Authorities are also now investigating possible sexual abuse of boys.

Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints members have vehemently denied there was any abuse, and civil liberties groups have raised concerns at the sweeping nature of the removals.

FLDS spokesman Rod Parker said the girl who gave birth was reclassified as a minor by CPS when the children were moved from the San Angelo Coliseum to foster facilities last week. He said he believes some of the girls, including possibly the one who gave birth, are over 18 but told authorities they were minors so they could stay with the very young children. Minors with children were placed in the foster care facilities together.

"There's a little bit of fighting fire with fire," Parker said.

Individual custody hearings are set to be completed by June 5.

CPS and law enforcement raided the ranch on April 3 after a girl claiming to be 16 called a domestic abuse hotline to complain of abuse at the hands her much older husband. Authorities are investigating whether the calls were a hoax.

Regardless, child welfare authorities say 31 of the 53 girls aged 14-17 have children or are pregnant.

According to bishop's records filled out in March 2007 by heads of household at the ranch, there were eight wives under the age of 18 listed in 35 households. Several entries omitted ages of wives, however.

Parker said he had never seen the bishop's records that were introduced at the hearing and couldn't talk about them specifically. He said there was no indication whether the relationships began in Texas or in Utah, which he said has different standards for what constitutes abuse.

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 girls who belong to the sect are not believed to have legal marriages.

The bishop's records released Thursday were used by CPS to demonstrate a pattern of abuse justifying the removal of all FLDS children in a hearing two weeks ago. The records indicate that about two-thirds of the ranch's households were polygamous while the others were young couples or traditional nuclear families.

Several family lists included dozens of wives and children, including one that listed 21 wives ranging in age from 24 to 79 for a 67-year-old man.

FLDS is a breakaway sect of the mainline Mormon church, which disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.

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