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Texas: Abuse, neglect at polygamist ranch

Nearly two-thirds of the families living at a polygamist group's ranch had children who were abused or neglected, authorities conclude in new report.
YE Polygamist Retreat
Nancy Dockstader, a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, embraces her daughter Amy, 9, after they were reunited near Luling, Texas, on June 2 following a court order. Eric Gay / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Nearly two-thirds of the families living at a polygamist group's ranch — targeted in a — had children who were abused or neglected, Texas child welfare authorities conclude in a new report.

The Department of Family and Protective Services said that 12 girls, ages 12 to 15, were sexually abused "with the knowledge of their parents" after being "spiritually" married to older men within the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

"Seven of these girls have had one or more children," the report added.

" The earliest marriage was in 2004 and the most recent known marriage took place in July 2006," the agency said. "Two girls were 12 when married; three were 13; two were 14; and five girls were 15 when married."

Those 12 girls and another 262 children were listed as neglected "because parents failed to remove their child from a situation in which the child would be exposed to sexual abuse committed against another child," the report stated.

The agency also said it had identified 124 "perpetrators" — either parents or men who engaged in illegal marriages.  

FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop disputed the findings.

"The department has made many allegations that it's never been able to back up, in an effort to justify their barbaric actions," he said. "They need to learn how to say we're sorry instead of trying to justify their actions."

$12 million tab so far
Child welfare authorities conducted investigations of all the families of the 439 children taken from the FLDS ranch in April. The investigation, which involved temporarily sheltering families after the ranch was raided, has so far cost more than $12 million, the agency said.

The report, which summarizes the investigations done on all 439 children, was issued at the request of the Health and Human Services executive commissioner, a gubernatorial appointee who oversees the protective services agency.

"We received what we believed was a bona fide abuse/neglect report. We were required by law to investigate," said DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins.

The report, an unusual step taken to help satisfy expected questions from the state Legislature when it convenes in January, summarized individual investigations and the history of the case. The findings, though shared with law enforcement, are separate from the ongoing criminal cases.

The individual investigations, which covered 146 families, concluded that 91 families had children who were abused or neglected. Crimmins said that conclusion confirmed what investigators initially suspected — that girls were being forced into underage marriages and other children were exposed to that harm.

The case "is about sexual abuse of girls and children who were taught that underage marriages are a way of life," the agency said in its report. "It is about parents who condoned illegal underage marriages and adults who failed to protect young girls — it has never been about religion."

The Health and Human Services executive commissioner, Albert Hawkins, is satisfied with the report, which includes a history of the raid and legal decisions made during the case, said spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman.

"It's easy to forget that when (child welfare authorities) arrived at the ranch, it was a very confusing situation," she said.

Initial calls a hoax?
All the children from the ranch were placed in foster care in April after authorities raided it in response to calls to a domestic abuse hot line. Those calls are being investigated as a hoax, though a dozen FLDS men now face charges including sexual abuse and bigamy based on documents and evidence seized at the ranch.

The children were returned to their parents in June after the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state had overstepped in removing all the children when it only had evidence of abuse or neglect involving about a half-dozen girls. Many of the children were boys or younger than 5.

Since the investigations, most of the 200 parents have been through parenting classes and signed agreements promising to protect their children from alleged abusers. All but 19 of the children's cases have been dropped from court oversight because the agency believes they can be kept safe.

The FLDS, which believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

The sect's prophet, Warren Jeffs, is among the 12 men charged in Texas. He was convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape and awaits trial in Arizona on other charges related to the marriages of the sect girls there.

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