Census sheets found in a safe at a polygamous sect’s ranch in west Texas both support and contradict the state’s claim of a widespread culture of underage marriage.
Texas authorities used the sheets to convince a judge that there was a “pervasive pattern” among the FLDS of marrying underage girls to older men.
A review of the “Father’s Family Information” sheets shows a handful of 16-year-old wives, 13 young monogamous couples and 24 men with multiple wives – including one man with 21 wives and 36 children.
A Texas Ranger testified about the census sheets during an April 17-18 court hearing before 51st District Judge Barbara Walther, who accepted the records as evidence despite objections from attorneys representing FLDS parents and children. The pages were recently released by the court. Sgt. Danny Crawford said the sheets were found April 5 in an office at the ranch, home to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Texas authorities raided the ranch on April 3 after receiving reports of an abused 16-year-old, calls now being investigated as a possible hoax.
Authorities have said, however, they found evidence of a polygamous lifestyle and underage marriage practices at the ranch that supported removing 464 children.
The bishop’s record sheets helped them make that case.
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The sheets were filled out between March and August of 2007 and list names of husbands, wife or wives, children and current residence.
Most are shown as living at the Yearning for Zion Ranch, but some are listed as being in Short Creek – the historic name of the twin towns now known as Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Others are described as living in Idaho, “elsewhere” or in the “house of hiding.” Among the documents is a sheet showing who was living at each home, duplex and trailer at the ranch.
Since the April 3 raid, FLDS members, their attorneys and one religious scholar have said the group has no doctrine or policy governing marriage age. They say girls and their parents are left to decide when the time is right, a claim critics dispute.
Until 2005, Texas allowed girls as young as 14 to marry with a parent’s permission; in September of that year, the age was increased to 16. In Texas, residents can legally consent to sex at age 17.
The bishop’s records do not include marriage dates or information about whether the marriages are legally recorded and, in all but a few instances, do not match children’s names to their mothers.
The state coupled the records, however, with information gathered in interviews to figure out how old a teenager or woman was when she had her first child.
Texas officials focused on five girls who conceived when they were 15 or 16, all of whom then gave birth recently when they were 16 or 17. According to the bishop’s record, three of those teenagers are in plural relationships with men who are 28, 35 and 40. One teenager, who is pregnant, is not listed on the records.
And one is shown as being in a monogamous marriage to a 22-year-old man.
Texas officials also looked at 15 other births that stretched back as far as 1993. They have since said they have identified 31 minors who have children or are pregnant, a group that includes 26 women whose ages are disputed.
Of the 37 families who filled out the sheets, 13 were monogamous couples. Those husbands ranged in age from 19 to 39, with an average age of 24.
The wives’ ages ranged from 16 to 39, with an average age of 21. There are two 16-year-old females listed as wives of men who were 19 and 22. Those two couples were among six young pairs shown as having no children. Most of the monogamous couples are close in age, with the biggest age spread being four years.
The records for 24 polygamous families tell a different story: The age discrepancy between husband and wives is greater and most have a large number of children.
The average age of the husbands was 38, but ages ranged from 24 to 67. One 54-year-old man is listed as having six wives, including one who is 17. A 56-year-old man has four wives, including one who is 19.
Wendell L. Nielsen, now in his late 60s and part of the FLDS hierarchy, is listed as having 21 wives, who ranged in age from 79 to 24, and 36 children. That count does not include Nielsen’s children who are older than 21 and not at the ranch.
Five families are shown as having 20 or more children; the biggest family includes six wives and 48 children who ranged in age from 2 to 18 last year. Such “mega-families” apparently are not typical. Nine of the plural families included two wives; another four men had three wives. One man shown has having two wives, whose ages are not recorded, is listed as having no children.