When Texas child welfare authorities released statistics showing nearly 60 percent of the teen girls taken from a polygamist sect's ranch were pregnant or had children, they seemed to prove what was alleged all along: The sect commonly pushed girls into marriage and sex.
But in the past week, the state has twice been forced to admit "girls" who gave birth while in state custody are actually adults. One was 22 and claims she showed state officials a Utah birth certificate shortly after she and more than 400 minors were seized from the west Texas ranch in an April raid.
The state has in custody two dozen other young mothers and others whose ages are in dispute. If most of them also turn out to be adults, it would be a severe blow to the state's claim of widespread sexual abuse.
If it turns out the other 24 disputed minors are adults, the number of actual 14- to 17-year-old girls with children could drop to as low as five or six. That would amount to about one-fifth of the girls that age found at the ranch — substantially higher than the average rate of teen pregnancies in Texas but a far cry from 60 percent.
"It's not widespread, and you've got to look at every family individually to determine whether there's a problem in a family," said Rod Parker, a spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the renegade Mormon sect that runs the ranch.
"There's no reluctance on our part to go ahead and take appropriate action if and when we can determine these are adults," said Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for Child Protective Services. "We are working as quickly as possible to sort this out and realize the urgency."
Scattered in foster homes
All 463 of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day children removed from the Yearning For Zion Ranch have been in state custody for six weeks and are scattered in foster care facilities around the state.
Crimmins said he's not sure how long it will take to resolve the disputed-minor cases. CPS has complained that sect members refused to cooperate with their investigation, constantly changing answers or refusing answers to questions about age and parentage.
Parker claims the state ignored evidence the young mothers presented, including birth certificates and Social Security cards. He said that with their long braided hair, makeup-free faces and pioneer dresses, the women look very young.
"They're deliberately ignoring official records that show these mothers are not minors," he said, citing the Utah birth certificate showing Louisa Bradshaw Jessop was born in 1986.
Questions surrounding age
Patricia Matassarin, Jessop's attorney, questioned how a person proves her age if officials won't believe a birth certificate or driver's license, which Jessop also gave the state.
"The issue is how does anyone prove the date of their birth? We don't get a date stamp when we're born," Matassarin said.
A birth certificate combined with testimony from Jessop's mother were presented, and state officials conceded in Austin on Thursday that Jessop is an adult.
Crimmins said many of the sect members whose ages are in dispute don't have documents typically used to establish age, like birth certificates, driver's licenses or public school records. FLDS children were home-schooled.
"We've been trying, sometimes with very little success, to get as much information as possible on the children," he said. "What we've said is consistent. We think there was some abuse — some physical abuse and some sexual abuse — at the ranch. This ranch was considered as a very large household."
The children are being treated the same as siblings of abused children in smaller households, where removal is common, Crimmins said.
Custody hearings planned
The FLDS case is one of the most complicated custody cases in U.S. history, but all the children from the ranch were sent to foster care after state District Judge Barbara Walther found they were being abused or were at risk for abuse because adults were pushing underage girls into sex and marriage with older men.
In Texas, girls who are younger than 17 generally cannot consent to sex with adult men.
No one has been arrested or charged in the case.
All the children are scheduled to have hearings in the next three weeks to determine what steps their parents will need to take to regain custody.
The FLDS, which teaches polygamy brings glorification in heaven, broke away from the mainline Mormon church, which disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.
Sect leader Warren Jeffs, who is revered as a prophet, has been sentenced to prison in Utah for being an accomplice to rape in arranging a marriage of a 14-year-old follower to her 19-year-old cousin. He is awaiting trial in Arizona, where he is charged as an accomplice with four counts each of incest and sexual conduct.
Jeffs' lawyers want the incest counts dropped, arguing that prosecutors in Mohave County cannot pursue those charges along with the sexual conduct counts. A judge is considering the request.