West Texas polygamist sect members search for normalcy at ranch
If it were up to Joseph and Lori Jessop, they’d be back at their West Texas polygamist ranch, not living in a vast San Antonio home with a hot tub and leather sofas.
Their three blond children clamoring around them – springing off of trampolines, drag-racing strollers, needing noses wiped and coats zipped up over matching outfits – mask the despair the Jessops say they feel over their detachment.
“The loneliness, you can’t imagine it,” Lori says softly. “This is not the life we chose.”
Back on the land the young couple left after about 440 children were removed from their parents, in a state raid that the courts ultimately struck down, another sect family is still healing. Edson Jessop and wife Zavenda Young say their four youngsters won’t sleep alone, and think every motor home on the horizon is a bus coming to take them away.
“We are very much a disrupted community,” Edson says.
Nearly nine months since state authorities raided the Yearning for Zion polygamist ranch and took hundreds of children into temporary custody, the families upended by the largest-ever U.S. child welfare case cling to their culture.
Some members of the Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints hunker down in suburban subdivisions across Texas, struggling to maintain piety and an austere lifestyle in the face of influences they consider immoral. Others have moved back to the ranch, trying to restore sanctity and self-sufficiency to their once-thriving community.
Members of the breakaway Mormon sect say the state jumped to conclusions based on religious bigotry, sweeping into their sacred temple and snatching healthy, happy children based on a hoax call and bad information from their critics. Child Protective Services says it was required by law to check out the initial tip – purportedly a distraught sect teenager’s plea for help to a women’s shelter, though now suspected of being from a Colorado woman with a history of filing false police reports.
CPS officials say once they began to interview girls at the ranch, caseworkers grew alarmed over possibly widespread child sexual abuse, involving girls pressured into “spiritual” marriages with older men. Agency leaders defend the mass removal as necessary so caseworkers could investigate their suspicions. State courts ultimately ruled, though, that CPS removed too many children without enough proof each was at risk of abuse, especially those who hadn’t reached puberty.
Last week, CPS capped its nine-month investigation with a report saying a dozen girls younger than 16 were “spiritually united” to adult men in the past four years. Of the 12, seven gave birth, CPS said. And nearly two-thirds of sect families investigated had children who were abused or neglected, mostly through inappropriate exposure to underage marriages.
Separately, a dozen men from the sect – including prophet Warren Jeffs – have been indicted on charges such as sexual assault of a child and felony bigamy. None has gone to trial.
Sect parents, though deeply affected, hardly call the shots in what has become a protracted legal and public relations battle between their church and Texas. Some say living at the ranch is still too risky. Others, confident that CPS can’t convince the public that the sect’s youth should be foster children, have urged all sect members to return.
Four recently agreed to talk.
BY THE NUMBERS
463: Number of people thought to be minors who were removed by Child Protective Services
2: Infants born while their mothers were in state foster care
26: Females who turned out to be adults and were released
439: Children returned to families in June by order of the Texas Supreme Court
424: Children “non-suited,” or dropped from court oversight, after CPS said either it found no evidence of abuse or the parents took needed steps to protect the children
15: Children in cases still before District Judge Barbara Walther of San Angelo
1: Girl, 14, who was returned to foster care after Judge Walther sided with CPS in ruling that she’s at risk because her parents let her “spiritually marry” sect prophet Warren Jeffs in 2006
The sect’s whereabouts in Texas:
•San Antonio area: 178 children in 33 households
•YFZ Ranch, Eldorado: 143 children in 30 households
•Other parts of Texas: 118 children at unspecified locations
(Note: Information is as of June 12, and little has changed, sect members say. CPS has families’ addresses but declined to provide an updated census by region, citing privacy considerations.)
Costs of the investigation:
$9.1 million: Transportation and shelter for the first three weeks after removal
$3.3 million: Foster care contractors, security and medical care
$127,000: Fees of court-appointed lawyers for children, through Dec. 19
$199,000: Attorney general’s office travel, evidence processing and DNA tests
$12.7 million: Case’s cost to state taxpayers (not including the salaries of state employees who worked on the case, overtime for CPS workers, travel costs incurred since June 4, and certain court-related costs)
SOURCES: Child Protective Services; Texas Health and Human Services Commission; Attorney General Greg Abbott; Gov. Rick Perry’s office; Dallas Morning News research