SAN ANGELO — The mothers of children removed from a West Texas polygamist sect’s ranch after an abuse allegation are appealing to Gov. Rick Perry for help.
In a letter sect members say was mailed to Perry on Saturday, the mothers from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints claim some of their children have become sick and even required hospitalization.
They also say children have been questioned about things they know nothing about since they were placed in the legal custody of the state.
Perry’s spokesman Robert Black said Sunday that he had not seen the letter and couldn’t comment.
Some 416 children were rounded up and placed in temporary custody 11 days ago, after a domestic violence hot line recorded a complaint from a 16-year-old girl. She said she was suffering physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her 50-year-old husband.
FLDS bought the 1,700-acre fenced ranch, a former game preserve, in 2003. A number of large dormitory-style homes have been built, along with a small medical facility, a cheese factory, a rock quarry, a water treatment plant and a white limestone temple.
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Interviews with law enforcement authorities and former members of the sect depict the Yearning for Zion Ranch as an outpost whose adult residents were considered the sect’s elite. They were hand-picked by the church’s leader, Warren Jeffs, who was convicted last year in Utah of being an accomplice to rape for arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her cousin.
Jeffs dubbed those chosen for the ranch as the “elect” or “heart’s core,” selected to live in the “holy land,” as he called the compound. The adults were his most loyal followers and the young children the least “contaminated” by the outside world, former members say.
The mothers’ one-page letter, signed by three women who claim they represent others, says about 15 mothers were away from the property when their children were removed.
“We were contacted and told our homes had been raided, our children taken away with no explanation, and because of law enforcement blockade preventing entering or leaving the ranch, we were unable to get to our homes and had no-where to go,” it said. “As of Wednesday, April 9, 2008, we have been permitted to return to our empty, ransacked homes, heartsick and lonely.”
The mothers said they want Perry to examine the conditions in which the removed children have been placed.
“You would be appalled,” the letter said. “Many of our children have become sick as a result of the conditions they have been placed in. Some have even had to be taken to the hospital. Our innocent children are continually being questioned on things they know nothing about. The physical examinations were horrifying to the children. The exposure to these conditions is traumatizing them.”
Asked about claims that children were hospitalized, state Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marissa Gonzalez said she had not seen the letter and would have to review it before commenting.
At least 50 phones taken
On Sunday, state officials enforced a judge’s order to confiscate the cell phones of the women and children removed from the sect’s private ranch.
The emergency order was sought by attorneys ad litem for 18 girls from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who are now in the legal custody of the state, Gonzalez said.
State District Judge Barbara Walther signed the order. It calls for the removal of all electronic communication devices including phones, PDAs and smart phones.
In a copy of the order provided to the AP, lawyers said the phones should be confiscated “to prevent improper communication, tampering with witnesses and to ensure no outside inhibitors to the attorney-client relationship.”
Gonazalez estimated that at least 50 phones were taken.
The children are currently being housed in San Angelo’s historic Fort Concho and at the nearby Wells Fargo pavilion. About 140 women from the ranch are also with the children, although they are not in state custody.
In their telephone calls, women and children had been calling relatives to report they are living in cramped conditions — cots, cribs and playpens are lined up side-by-side — and that many of the children are afraid.
An FLDS man who told the AP that his family members are among those inside the fort called the removal of phones a punishment.
“This was nothing more than retaliation of CPS to punish those who were disclosing what is really happening behind that wall of this concentration camp,” said Don, who asked that only his first name be used.
Affidavits filed by child protection workers said that upon investigating, they found a pattern of abuse existed at the Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado, south of San Angelo.
Authorities said they have not yet located the teenage mother whose call for help triggered the raid.
The Washington Post contributed to this report.
• Original title: Women from polygamist sect ask Perry to intervene