AUSTIN – A dozen girls in a polygamist sect have been sexually abused in underage “spiritual marriages” performed with their parents’ consent, Texas Child Protective Services said Tuesday.
More than one of every four pubescent girls at the Yearning for Zion ranch near Eldorado was married at an inappropriate age, CPS found.
“The 12 girls were ‘spiritually’ married at ages ranging from 12 to 15, and seven of these girls have had one or more children,” CPS said in a report wrapping up a nine-month investigation in the largest-ever U.S. child welfare case.
Sect spokesman Willie Jessop called the report a “sensational” bid by state bureaucrats to win over public opinion after they rashly ordered a mass removal of children last spring and managed to keep only one girl in foster care.
CPS also found that the dozen girls and 262 other sect children are victims of parental neglect under Texas law because parents left them in situations where they would be exposed to the underage marriages.
Of the 146 families investigated, 62 percent received a letter from CPS this fall saying that abuse or neglect had been confirmed. In the other 55 families, CPS ruled out or couldn’t establish that abuse or neglect had occurred.
In the report, delivered by state Family and Protective Services Commissioner Anne Heiligenstein to social services czar Albert Hawkins, CPS defended its actions.
“For the Department of Family and Protective Services, the Yearning for Zion case is about sexual abuse of girls and children who were taught that underage marriages are a way of life,” the report said. “It is about parents who condoned illegal underage marriages and adults who failed to protect young girls – it has never been about religion.”
Mr. Jessop said the Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which owns the ranch, doesn’t mistreat girls. He said teen pregnancies do occur but at no higher frequency than in society at large.
Stopping just short of threatening a lawsuit against the state, Mr. Jessop said CPS’ actions threaten the security of all Americans, especially religious minorities.
“This is a desperate attempt for Texas officials to justify their barbaric actions they did on April 3,” he said of the report.
The report by the department, CPS’ parent agency, pointedly dismisses one of the sect’s main criticisms – that CPS and law enforcement officers entered the ranch based on a report of child sexual abuse received by a San Angelo women’s shelter. The tip is now thought to have originated through hoax calls from a Colorado woman with a history of filing false police reports.
“The report met the statutory definition of abuse; therefore, DFPS was required to act,” the report said. It said child-abuse investigators quickly learned of several underage marriages and removed 18 girls the next day, April 4.
“Over the weekend, investigators discovered wedding photos involving young girls and records indicating a pattern of underage marriages and births,” the report said.
“Girls told investigators that no age was too young for marriage and that ‘the Prophet’ determined when and who a girl should marry,” it said.
CPS workers, though, encountered “a pattern of deception” as they tried to sort things out, the report said. Sect members shredded documents and women and youngsters withheld information about their identities and family ties, CPS said.
Texas child welfare officials have concluded that a dozen under-age girls living at the ranch of a polygamist sect that was raided in April were involved in “spiritual” marriages to older men.
“The Yearning for Zion case is about sexual abuse of girls and children who were taught that under-age marriages are a way of life,” the report said. “It is about parents who condoned illegal under-age marriages and adults who failed to protect young girls — it has never been about religion.”
According to the report, sexual abuse of children at the ranch was common, with 12 girls, ages 12 to 15, “spiritually” married to older men. Seven of those girls had given birth to one or more children, the report found.
But a spokesman for the families at the ranch, who belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or F.L.D.S., rejected the report’s conclusions and questioned its authors’ motives.
The spokesman, Willie Jessop, called the report “a desperate attempt by the officials of the Family and Protective Services Department to try and justify their barbaric actions of April 3.”
Pointing out that the courts had ordered the return of the children who had been removed from the ranch, he added, “Now they are trying to put out a report and justify it, and it doesn’t hold up.” The sect broke from the mainstream Mormon Church after it rejected polygamy in 1890 and has since found itself in public legal battles over the practice.
The report, requested by the executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, detailed the controversial raid on the ranch.
AUSTIN — State child welfare officials on Tuesday defended their controversial raid on a West Texas polygamist compound, saying a dozen girls living on the ranch had been forced into underage marriages and that seven had given birth.
The report, by officials of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said the raid was about child abuse, not religion.
But leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, many of whose followers lived at the ranch, accused the state agency of conducting an overzealous raid simply because the group believes in polygamous marriages. The leaders held that “spiritual marriages” of underage girls to middle-aged men were godly.
“The department has made many allegations that it’s never been able to back up, in an effort to justify their barbaric actions,” spokesman Willie Jessop said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They need to learn how to say we’re sorry instead of trying to justify their actions.”
The report says investigators noted 91 families in which there was reason to believe one or both parents had abused or neglected a child in the family by agreeing to an underage marriage.
The agency ruled out 12 families and was unable to determine what may or may not have occurred in 39 others. The agency was unable to complete the investigation of one family and administratively closed the cases involving three families.
The agency reported that 12 girls, ranging in age from 12 to 15, were “victims of sexual abuse at the YFZ Ranch with the knowledge of their parents” by being placed in “spiritual marriages.” The earliest of those marriages took place in 2004, and the most recent known marriage was in 2006.
Most of the children were returned to their parents in June after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the agency had exceeded its authority in removing children who were not in immediate danger of being forced into marriages. One child remains in foster care.
Most of the 200 parents have signed agreements promising to protect their children from sexual abuse. A dozen men have been indicted in the investigation on charges ranging from sexual assault of a child to failure to report abuse, the report said.