Is sect's West Texas ranch one household?

State agency says yes, but residents and court disagree.

American-Statesman/May 30, 2008

Eldorado - A rocky hill inside the Yearning for Zion Ranch offers an expansive view of the 1,691-acre property: straight ahead, the white limestone temple with its teethlike rooflines; to the left, the fruit orchards; and all around, the sturdy, log-cabin-style homes. Dusty roads connect it all.

Is the ranch - owned by members of a breakaway Mormon sect that practices polygamy - a single household?

Child Protective Services officials contend that it is, and they say that justified their decision in April to seize all of the more than 400 children who lived there when their investigation showed a pattern of child abuse.

But members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and their lawyers say that the ranch on County Road 300 is more like a gated neighborhood.

The legal status of the West Texas ranch - household or religious commune - figured prominently in legal briefs filed by the state and by attorneys for some of the mothers whose children were removed.

The Texas Supreme Court did not address the issue in its ruling Thursday, letting a previous appeals court opinion stand. That court found insufficient evidence that the ranch is a single household.

Sect member Willie Jessop cringes when he hears people call the place a compound. He prefers to call it a "West Texas community."

"As bad as everybody thinks we live in the same house, we don't," Jessop said while showing members of the media around the ranch last week.

CPS officials say that even though it has multiple homes, the property is one residence. They say that when investigators discovered some children were victims of sexual abuse - specifically, men "commanding sex" with young girls and women condoning the abuse - they decided all the children at the ranch were in danger, and state District Judge Barbara Walther agreed.

"They live together in a communal situation," agency spokesman Patrick Crimmins said. "It's essentially the same address, the same physical location, just different buildings. It's a single community living under a similar belief system."

The entire Yearning for Zion Ranch pays taxes as a single entity, according to the Schleicher County Appraisal District.

Lawyer D'Ann Johnson, who represents three mothers, called the notion of the ranch as a single residence "a tortuous interpretation."

When Johnson, Austin branch manager of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, visited the ranch recently to meet with client Sara Steed, a mother of six, she saw dwellings divided into separate apartments with separate entrances, she said.

Each apartment - some buildings have several, depending on the size of the families - has its own kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms, Johnson said.

"They have their own keys," she said. "They don't walk into other people's apartments."

Inside, Johnson said, she saw family photo albums, cribs and bunk beds.

If the Yearning for Zion Ranch is a single household, it's a very large one that includes a medical clinic and a schoolhouse as well as homes.

Residents of the ranch craft their own buildings and furniture, Jessop said. They cut limestone from the property to build the temple; milk comes from cows at their on-site dairy, and they make their own cheese.

At a community store, ranch residents make notes in a spiral book when they take items such as cheese, canned tuna or molasses, Johnson said.

Small gardens border the two- and three-story homes - roses bloom at one - and some have covered porches. The schoolhouse has the same log-and-concrete construction as the homes.

Jessop said that just as in any neighborhood, the school is a community building, while residences are private.

At the entrance to the ranch is a chain-locked metal gate. But the front door to the schoolhouse - empty because the children are in foster care around the state - was unlocked during the media visit.

"When you guys came in, no one came running over and unlocked the door," Jessop said.

To Legal Aid lawyer Nancy DeLong of Corpus Christi, who represents several mothers, the setup is not much different from a gated community.

"People live together closely, but that doesn't mean they live in the same home," DeLong said. "It's just so obvious to me."

The 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin agreed.

The opinion issued last week by Chief Justice Kenneth Law and Justices Bob Pemberton and Alan Waldrop said: "While there was evidence that the living arrangements on the ranch are more communal than most typical neighborhoods, the evidence was not legally or factually sufficient to support a theory that the entire ranch community was a 'household' " under state law.

The Texas family code defines "household" as "a unit composed of persons living together in the same dwelling, without regard to whether they are related to each other."

And state law says that when considering whether a child is in immediate danger, a court may consider whether the child's household includes someone who has abused another child.

Scott McCown, a former state district judge and executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said that it's a case-by-case decision whether to remove other children from a home where abuse or neglect has been found. But when a child has been sexually abused, he said, it's common to remove the other children.

"What's troubling about the Court of Appeals decision," McCown said, "is if you've got some family sharing some common space and answering to a common leader and one of the men is a pedophile, you could remove his child, but if the other parents said, 'We're going to live here with this pedophile,' you'd have to leave all the other children."

In appealing the 3rd Court's ruling, CPS last week reiterated testimony by supervisory investigator Angie Voss during a mass hearing in April: "When you find one child that's a victim in a home, you have concerns for all of them," she said. "And the ranch is considered one large home, one large community. I would have concerns for any children there."

Voss said the ranch wouldn't be safe for any child - even babies and toddlers - because the parents said they aren't harming the children and that "the practice of children being united and having children is part of their culture and belief system."

Sect leader Warren Jeffs at times excommunicated sect members who displeased him and "reassigned" their wives and children to other men, according to "When Men Become Gods" by Stephen Singular.

Jeffs was convicted in Utah last year in connection with an arranged marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.

Court records filed Thursday in Arizona show that DNA samples were taken from Jeffs as part of a Texas investigation into whether he fathered children with four underage girls at the Eldorado Ranch.

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