SAN ANGELO — Ten “girls” taken into custody by Texas Child Protective Services have convinced the agency they are really adults and more are expected to be similarly reclassified this week, weakening the agency’s claim that dozens of underage girls were forced by a polygamist sect to have sex with older men.
On Tuesday, six more “girls” were deemed adults, including 27-year-old Leona Allred, whose lawyer insisted CPS knew from the beginning that her client was an adult.
“My client showed them the same documents they showed them from the beginning: a valid Arizona driver’s license and a birth certificate,” said Andrea Sloan.
Two others, Merilyn Jeffs Keate and Sarah Cathleen Jessop Nielsen, were reclassified as adults Monday as five judges began sifting through the cases of all the children taken from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in West Texas.
Last week, the agency acknowledged that two “girls” who were among the more than 460 children they removed from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints‘ ranch were really 18 and 22.
The revelations about the true ages of some sect members are coming to light during custody status hearings being held at the Tom County courthouse over the next three weeks.
But also Tuesday, two cases came up that revealed girls as young as 15 and 16 had been united in spiritual marriages with older men.
One of those girls, now 19, was ruled an adult by the courts but not before she said in a conference call to the court that she could have been no older than 16 when her daughter was born on Aug. 19, 2005.
And in another courtroom, information gleaned from the records of a 17-year-old indicated she had to have been 15 when her first child was born.
Conflicting info blamed
CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins denied any suggestion that the agency’s massive undertaking may be on the verge of collapse, adding: “The numbers aren’t important to us.”
He said CPS was stymied by the conflicting and false information given by families, which made establishing ages nearly impossible. He added that his agency never intentionally misled anyone when it said it believed it had more than two dozen females who were being sexually abused as minors.
CPS raided the ranch April 3 after the agency received a tip a 16-year-old had been physically and sexually abused by her “spiritual husband.” The caller has never been found and the tip has all but been ruled a hoax.
On April 28, CPS officials said the agency believed that 31 of the 53 girls were between ages 14 and 17 and were pregnant, had children or both. But that 31 figure has been tied precariously to the fact that 26 “disputed minors” were among them.
Sloan and other lawyers for the disputed girls said Tuesday they believe CPS deliberately classified them as children so that their own investigators, together with Texas Department of Public Safety officers, could interview them without their attorney present. Sloan said two of her disputed clients have been interviewed by either Texas Rangers or DPS troopers and CPS investigators, even though her clients told the authorities they wanted their attorneys present.
Attorney Laura Shockley, who also represents disputed minors, said the authorization for the interviews came from Tom Green County Assistant District Attorney Allison Palmer, the lead prosecutor.
A call to Palmer’s office was not immediately returned Tuesday. DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange said Tuesday she had no comment about the lawyers’ allegations.
“CPS did not classify women as minors so that criminal investigators could interview them,” said CPS’ Crimmins. But he neither confirmed nor denied that older young women were being targeted by investigators for interviews.
In other developments Tuesday, a former FLDS member who said he had been “excommunicated” by the group, traveled more than 1,000 miles to Texas to support Esther Barlow, his former “spiritual wife,” in her quest to get the couple’s five children returned to her.
“I can honestly say there’s not a better mother than Esther,” said Barlow, who split from her four years ago and now lives with another wife and their 12 children in Utah.
Barlow also told the judge that if the state doesn’t return the children to his ex-wife, he was willing to move his current family to Texas to take care of them.
Throughout the hearings, complaints were again heard about the broad requirements CPS has put to all the parents in the state’s “family service plans,” a document that lists items to be completed before children in state custody can be returned to families.
One of convicted FLDS leader Warren Jeffs’ many wives, 34-year-old Monica Sue Jeffs, appeared in court in her effort to win back her five children, ages 3 to 11.
She told the judge that Jeffs was the biological father of all the children, something she apparently withheld from CPS until very recently. She said she had read the family service plan and understood it.
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