SAN ANGELO, Texas – Flora Jessop wishes she was wrong.
She wishes authorities hadn’t found dozens of young girls at a polygamous sect’s ranch in West Texas who were already mothers or pregnant. That rumors of abuse were unfounded. That no one had to experience the upheaval that now has beset members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
But she also wishes someone – Utah and Arizona authorities, specifically – had acted long before now to stop the sect’s practice of arranging marriages between young girls and older men.
“Do I wish it on them? Absolutely not,” said Jessop, who lives in Arizona. “But if a child is being hurt, the authorities need to be there for the children. They deserve the right to be free from abuse, just like their parents.”
Utah and Arizona authorities have said they will not prosecute polygamous relationships that involve adults – a position taken because such prosecutions would likely fail on constitutional grounds. But the two states have attacked the sect’s practice of underage marriages with some success.
Most notably, Utah prosecuted sect leader Warren S. Jeffs last fall for conducting an arranged marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin. He received two consecutive five-to-life terms and is now awaiting prosecution in Arizona on similar charges.
Utah authorities also crippled the sect’s home base in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., by seizing its communal property trust in 2005. That trust remains under court oversight.
Jessop has always maintained the states have not done enough, however.
Jessop, who left the sect when she was 16, has spent the past decade helping other teens and women leave the FLDS church.
She won’t say whether she knows the teen involved in this case, but Jessop told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday that authorities had identified the wrong man as her husband. She also said the girl’s husband had broken her ribs – something revealed in an affidavit released by Texas authorities on Tuesday.
Jessop has called the massive investigation the girl’s call triggered a “colossal mistake” because it smacks of the 1953 Short Creek Raid, in which Arizona authorities took approximately 263 women and children into custody in an effort to stamp out polygamy.
She said the women and children who have been rounded up and sent to Fort Concho or the Wells Fargo Pavilion are unlikely to share the sort of information sought by authorities – names of fathers, dates of births, ages.
“First of all, they are all terrified they are going to hell if they talk to anybody,” she said. “They’ve been taught their entire lives not to reveal who their mother is, who their father is. It’s part of the culture of secrecy. And secrecy breeds isolation.”
She believes many of the children at the ranch were sent there by parents in other states and claims they were taken from those families and given to “more worthy” ones. The 16-year-old girl whose call to a family shelter triggered the investigation said as much in her phone calls for help to an unnamed family shelter in Texas.
Jessop said one girl told her “The men own the babies, not the mothers.”
Texas authorities said Tuesday during a press conference that many of the children do not appear to have parents there.
Jessop also said that one way young teens were enticed to stay at the ranch was their infants were given to other plural wives – women who shared a common husband – to raise.
“If they spread the children out to other women,” she said, “the mothers are not going to leave.”