|FLDS Report Says 12 Girls Married Underage
By Ben Winslow
December 23, 2008
Texas child welfare authorities say 12 girls from the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch are confirmed victims of sexual abuse and neglect because they were married at ages ranging from 12 to 15.
Those are among the conclusions reached in a final investigation into the raid that resulted in hundreds of children from the Utah-based polygamous sect being placed in state protective custody. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services released its long-anticipated report on the raid on the YFZ Ranch early Tuesday after a public-records request by the Deseret News.
"There were 43 girls removed from the ranch from the ages of 12 to 17 — which means that more than one out of every four pubescent girls on the ranch was in an underage marriage," the investigation claims. "262 other children were subjected to neglect because parents failed to remove their child from a situation in which the child would be exposed to sexual abuse committed against another child within their families or households."
Reacting to the report, FLDS member and spokesman Willie Jessop told the Deseret News the raid was not justified. "What Texas did was barbaric, and it's a terrible injustice," he said Tuesday. "It's un-American."
The report claims two girls were 12 when they married, three were 13; two were 14 and five girls were 15. Seven of the girls had one or more children after marriage. The report acknowledges the earliest of the spiritual marriages took place in 2004 and the latest was in July 2006. CPS identified the perpetrators as the parents and the husband of each girl.
Jessop said Texas authorities misinterpret their definition of "marriage."
"They tried to force the interpretation of marriage to involve sex, and it didn't work out for them," he said Tuesday.
Shortly after the raid, the FLDS Church said it would no longer condone underage marriages, instead encouraging its members to wait until they are of legal age before entering into any marriage arrangement.
CPS said its investigation began March 30 after receiving a report alleging physical and sexual abuse of a child on the YFZ Ranch. On April 3, law enforcement and CPS caseworkers went to the ranch.
"The very first interviews at the ranch revealed that several underage girls had been 'spiritually united' with adult men," the report said. "Investigators also noticed a pattern of deception. Women and children frequently said they could not answer questions about the ages of girls or family relationships. Children were moved from location to location in an apparent attempt to prevent investigators from talking to them. Documents were being shredded. Girls told investigators that no age was too young for marriage and that 'the Prophet' determined when and who a girl should marry."
CPS and law enforcement have claimed that on-site they found evidence of abuse, prompting a judge to order the removal of all of the children from the ranch. Hundreds of children were placed in state protective custody.
The custody case that ensued is the largest in U.S. history.
The 439 children were ultimately returned to their families two months later when a pair of Texas courts ruled the state acted improperly and not all of the children were at immediate risk of abuse.
"The claims they are making in this report, bottom line: They just didn't have the authority to do what they did," said Cynthia Martinez of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which took the case to court.
Martinez noted that all of the mothers they represented had their cases dropped and called the report another effort to justify the removal of the children.
"Of the 146 families investigated, 62 percent had a confirmed finding of abuse or neglect involving one or more children in the family," the report said.
Breaking down the dispositions of the cases, CPS found:
• With 91 families, CPS determined it was "reasonable to believe that one or both parents in the family sexually abused or neglected a child in the family by entering into an illegal underage marriage with a child, failing to take reasonable steps to prevent the illegal underage marriage of a child, or failing to remove one or more children in the family from a situation in which they would be exposed" to an underage marriage.
• Twelve families were found to have committed no abuse against a child in their family.
• With 39 families, CPS was unable to determine that any abuse or neglect occurred.
• In three families, CPS determined it did not need to investigate.
• With one family, CPS could not complete its investigation.
Only 15 children and five mothers remained under court jurisdiction in the ongoing custody case, the CPS report said Tuesday. One child, a 14-year-old girl believed to have been married at age 12 to FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, is back in foster care after a judge ruled her mother could not protect her from abuse and neglect.
Families signed service plans pledging to protect their children from sex abuse, with 170 parents agreeing to participate in parenting classes. Classes were given to 63 girls ages 10 to 17 on sex abuse and state laws on underage marriage.
Meanwhile, criminal investigations linked to the raid are ongoing.
A dozen men, including FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, have been indicted in a parallel criminal investigation. They face charges related to underage marriages from sexual assault of a child and bigamy to performing a marriage ceremony prohibited by law and failure to report child abuse.
The phone call that prompted the raid itself is believed to be hoax. A Colorado woman with a history of phony abuse calls has been declared a "person of interest" in the ongoing probe.
CPS' actions in the YFZ raid are expected to be closely scrutinized in the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission said it requested a comprehensive report on the investigation's results and all of the work that went into the case.
"I think CPS did that," commission spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said Tuesday. "It's clear that underage marriages were far too common at the ranch. We hope that changes and girls are protected from sexual abuse in the future."
The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform called the report "self-justifying claptrap."
"In effect, Texas CPS has admitted to engaging in child abuse on a massive scale," executive director Richard Wexler said. "And there is no acknowledgement at all of the misleading statements CPS made throughout the children's ordeal."
Texas CPS insists it was investigating abuse.
"For the Department of Family and Protective Services, the Yearning for Zion case is about sexual abuse of girls and children who were taught that underage marriages are a way of life," the report concluded. "It is about parents who condoned illegal underage marriages and adults who failed to protect young girls — it has never been about religion."
"No one will look back and say what they did was justified," he said.
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