AUSTIN – State child-abuse investigators returned twice to a polygamist sect ranch Wednesday to see if additional youngsters, not yet swept into state care, are living there.
Both times, however, sect members at the Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado refused to allow the Child Protective Services workers to enter.
CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said the investigators made the second attempt to get in late Wednesday afternoon, a few hours after Utah-based sect elder Willie Jessop “indicated that he would allow caseworkers access.”
But she said the workers “were met at the gate by Mr. Jessop, who refused to allow them to enter.”
Mr. Jessop, who has been in Texas acting as the group’s spokesman, couldn’t be reached immediately. Earlier, though, he said if any youngsters remain on the 1,700-acre ranch, they came with parents recently arrived to comfort relatives whose children Texas took into custody last month.
Sect spokesmen said CPS officials gave them names of five children who were reported to be living at the ranch.
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The rebuffs of CPS workers at the ranch gates came nearly seven weeks after sect members voluntarily let in caseworkers and law enforcement officials, though the visitors then had a search warrant.
On Wednesday morning, sect member Guy Jessop refused entry to the CPS investigators because they did not have a search warrant. In child-abuse cases, CPS workers usually do not obtain search warrants because they don’t pursue criminal matters, although they sometimes pass along information to police and prosecutors.
The surprise events raised the question of whether any children now at the ranch – regardless of whether adults suspected of abuse are no longer there – could be swept into state custody, joining some 460 others.
Said CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins: “We absolutely would not automatically remove children at the ranch. What we tried to do today was gain access to the ranch so we could find out if there were any children there and if they were safe. But we were not allowed the opportunity to do that.”
He wouldn’t discuss the source of the new information, though tips on possible abuse and neglect of children usually are called into a CPS-run hotline.
Meanwhile, in a third day of custody status hearings in San Angelo for sect children already in state care, an underpinning of the state’s rationale for why it removed the hundreds of youngsters from the ranch continued to weaken.
At least eight mothers initially put into foster care as underage girls have been reclassified as adults, significantly eroding the state’s initial count of 31 underage mothers. One is 27. Others were expected to be reclassified as adults in coming days.
Also on Wednesday, sect members requested 500 to 600 voter registration cards from Schleicher County, something they had not done in the five years since their breakaway Mormon group bought and improved the ranch.
“As residents of the state, we have to take responsibility for part of this,” said Willie Jessop. “We were naive enough to believe there was good people in government to protect our rights.”
Staff writer Emily Ramshaw in Austin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.