SAN ANGELO, Texas – A child abuse investigator who led the initial foray into a polygamous sect’s west Texas ranch said Thursday that children are not safe there because their parents have a belief system that “turns boys into perpetrators and girls into sexual assault victims.”
Angie Voss, a supervisor with Texas Child Protective Services, spent six hours in an unprecedented custody hearing testifying about why the state took 416 children two weeks ago from the YFZ Ranch, owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Voss said one minor is pregnant and four have children. “There are young girls who feel the pinnacle of their existence is to get married whenever they are told and have as many children as they can have,” she said. Even infants and children in monogamous homes are not safe on the ranch, she said. “It’s not about religion. It’s about child abuse,” Voss said, drawing laughter from many of the 100 or so FLDS members in the audience.
A phalanx of attorneys from across Texas questioned how Voss could justify keeping the kids when she acknowledges they are healthy, loved and likely to be traumatized by the continuing separation.
“I don’t see how . . . on the evidence presented so far she [the judge] can do anything but send these kids back,” Kenneth Fuller, an attorney for six children, said outside the court.
The hearing, which is drawing on services of about 350 attorneys from throughout the state, resumes before 51st District Judge Barbara Walther at 9:30 a.m. today.
The hearing got off to a chaotic start as about 200 parents, attorneys and reporters filing into the Tom Green County District Courthouse were stalled by security and sign-in checkpoints. Another 300 people filled an auditorium at San Angelo City Hall that is being used as an overflow court room. “When do we get to vote somebody off the island?” one attorney joked during a recess in the 11-hour hearing – and after a testy exchange between the judge and Fuller.
The hearing was raucous as Walther batted down one of objection after another, and repeatedly told attorneys, “Take your seat.” Voss said 12 investigators arrived at the ranch at 9 p.m. on April 3, four days after receiving the first of several calls from a distressed teenager named Sarah who said she was being physically and sexually abused there.
She said CPS relied on two experts for information before and during the investigation: psychiatrist Bruce Perry of Texas and Rebecca Musser, an ex-FLDS member. Perry has worked with children from the Branch Davidian sect, whose compound in Waco, Texas, burned down during an FBI siege that claimed the lives of 76 people, 21 of them children. Musser is the sister of Elissa Wall, who testified in a Utah court last year that she was 14 when Jeffs arranged for her to marry her 19-year-old cousin despite her objections.
He also awaits trial in Arizona on other charges of arranging marriages for teenage girls.
Wall also has a civil lawsuit against Jeffs, the FLDS Church and its communal property trust pending in a Utah court. Musser, a plural wife of the late Rulon Jeffs, Warren Jeffs’ father, also testified in the Utah trial.
Voss said FLDS men met her team at the ranch gate as the raid began.
When they asked about a girl named Sarah the men shook their heads and said there were no Sarahs at the ranch. Still, the men escorted five investigators and some officers to a schoolhouse, where the state workers took separate rooms and asked to see all girls ages 17 and younger, Voss said, and the men brought in about 15 girls.
While the FLDS men, including their leader, Merrill Jessop, were “cordial and respectful,” Voss said she felt intimidated. “I was afraid,” she said.
Girls told investigators there were several Sarahs on the ranch, Voss said. Some girls said they had seen that particular Sarah four days earlier working in the ranch garden. Officials have said they do not know if Sarah is in state custody. Voss acknowledged Texas Rangers dismissed one girl named Sarah after interrogating her overnight at Fort Concho.
Throughout the investigation, Voss said the girls have been evasive and given conflicting details about themselves.
It became clear, she said, that many children lived in homes with multiple mothers but a single father.
The girls, she said, told investigators they were taught that they should lie if their prophet, Warren Jeffs, said they should lie.
“The girls indicated to us there is no age that is too young to be spiritually united,” Voss said.
Investigators used journals found in a girls’ classroom at the school to stitch together information about underage mothers. By the morning of April 4, Voss said, she had decided to remove the children from the ranch.
Mothers protested initially, she said, acquiesced when FLDS Bishop Merrill Jessop – who spoke to them via a cell phone on speaker mode – advised them to cooperate.
She found it strange that they immediately complied, though some cried as they loaded their children onto school buses.
Attorney Amy Hennington, who represents some of the fathers, argued it was unfair to question the girls that night at the ranch without letting them consult with an attorney.
Other lawyers pressed for mothers and fathers to be given back their children. Rebecca Flannigan, an attorney whose firm represents 46 mothers, drew applause when she sparred with the judge over whether mothers with small children at shelters were being detained.
“I am supposed to tell my client she can leave but her 2-year-old stays?” Flannigan said. “That’s detention.”
Much of the wrangling among attorneys early in the hearing had to do with evidence the judge allowed the state to admit.
Those included medical records of three teenage girls in custody and a document labeled “Bishop’s Record” seized from a ranch safe that showed 10 teenagers married, as of a year ago, to older men.
Attorneys for FLDS members pointed out many of those family records showed monogamous parents of legal age.
The CPS wants the judge to order the parents to give genetic samples to be compared to the children’s’, wants the parents evaluated by psychiatrists or psychologists and wants her to place the children in temporary foster care outside the five-county area served by the court.
Voss acknowledged that DNA samples have already been taken from children, without approval of their court-appointed attorneys.