SAN ANGELO — The state has taken legal, temporary custody of 401 children from a polygamist compound in nearby Schleicher County, a child welfare official said today, citing allegations of abuse and that the children were at risk of harm.
“In my opinion, this is the largest endeavor we’ve ever been involved with in the state of Texas,” Marleigh Meisner, spokeswoman for Child Protective Services, said as the number of children in temporary custody grew from an initial 18 youngsters.
Temporary custody was awarded by a state district judge, Meisner said. Each child will be appointed a guardian ad litem and an attorney ad litem to represent their interests, she said.
In addition, 133 women have voluntarily joined the children, who are being held at an historic site, Fort Concho, that includes facilities for lodging.
State officials are probably close to finished with their search of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints ranch, Meisner said, “but we’re not there yet.”
The announcement of the additional children taken into temporary custody came as the Texas Department of Public Safety revealed that a man was arrested during the search of the compound.
DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange said the man was charged with interfering with the duties of a public servant, a Class B misdemeanor. That is punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine.
“He was not doing what the officers at the scene wanted him to do,” Mange said, giving no other details of his actions nor his name.
Officials still haven’t found the 16-year-old girl whose abuse complaint triggered the massive raid.
A prosecutor said Sunday she was concerned for the safety of the girl, who first called a week ago seeking help. The girl said that she was 16 and had a baby by an older husband.
“Certainly, I have a concern for her health and well-being, certainly a concern for her safety,” said Allison Palmer, first assistant district attorney for the 51st judicial district, which includes Schleicher County, where the complex is located.
Officers and child abuse investigators didn’t enter the ranch until Thursday, when a search warrant was signed allowing them to search for records relating to the pregnancy of the girl and marriage to a man identified in the warrant as Dale Barlow.
Authorities believe the girl, who has an 8-month-old daughter, was 15 when she was married. A 2005 change in state law, prompted by concern about the sect, raised the state legal age for a girl to marry from 14 to 16.
Palmer said Barlow has been located in another state and that he is wanted on a charge of sexual assault of a child, a second-degree felony.
Barlow’s probation officer told The Salt Lake Tribune that he was in Arizona.
“He said the authorities had called him (in Colorado City, Ariz.) and some girl had accused him of assaulting her and he didn’t even know who she was,” said Bill Loader, a probation officer in Arizona.
The raid came more than four years after members of the church, long based on the Arizona-Utah border, began arriving at this rural agricultural community.
While mainstream Mormons disavowed polygamy more than a century ago, the sect, led by the now imprisoned Warren Jeffs, believes in plural, arranged marriages that often involve teenage girls and older men.
In September, Jeffs was convicted in Utah of being an accomplice in the rape of a 14-year-old girl. He faces additional charges of sexual conduct with a minor, incest and conspiracy in Arizona.
Since arriving, the polygamists have erected more than 35 buildings and a massive white temple on the compound, which is believed to be home to several hundred people.