AUSTIN, Texas — The state's top child welfare official said investigators found "historic physical injuries and fractures" among the children taken from the Fundamentalist LDS Church's ranch.

The information came Wednesday during a hearing here before the Texas Senate Committee on Health and Human Services.

"Some of the fractures have been found in very young children," said Commissioner Carey Cockerell of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

He said 41 children have broken bones or previous fractures. He did not elaborate on what investigators believe may have caused the injuries and refused to speak with reporters after his testimony.

Rod Parker, an attorney for the FLDS Church, lashed out at Cockerell and Texas officials Wednesday.

"It's part of their PR campaign to attack the parents with highly inflammatory implications," he told the Deseret News.

"They're not even alleging anything specific, just hoping the public will draw the obvious conclusion," he said. "It's really inappropriate for public officials to behave in this manner."

DFPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins called Parker's assertions "ridiculous" and emphasized Cockerell was simply reporting to state senators who requested an update on the case.

"We're still in the investigative stage, and we haven't determined whether the injuries were due to abuse or neglect or were just childhood accidents," he said.

Parker said he spoke Wednesday with the doctor who operated a clinic at the FLDS Church's YFZ Ranch. "The breaks he's seen haven't occurred in a setting where he would suspect child abuse at all," the attorney said.

"They can treat some simple fractures (at the ranch clinic), but usually it's in consultation with an orthopedic doctor in San Angelo," Parker said, adding that doctors are required to report any suspicions of child abuse.

"There's not a single episode of child abuse (of FLDS) reported in Texas, or Utah or Arizona, either."

"Isn't it ironic that (Child Protective Services) is talking about broken bones when a little 7-year-old girl in the care of CPS broke an arm while she was at the Wells Fargo Pavilion?" FLDS member Willie Jessop said Wednesday.

"When we inquired about the incident, they came after us with this sensational story. They are distorting the facts and trying to justify their barbaric actions."

The commissioner also reported that, based on journal entries and interviews, DFPS is investigating possible sexual abuse of some young boys at the ranch.

Parker called the comment "irresponsible" and "unethical," saying there was no evidence to support the claim.

"Where the heck did that come from, anyway?" Jessop added. "Are they just pulling this stuff out of the air without having to prove the allegation or what?"

Crimmins said he could not elaborate on the alleged abuse.

Cockerell also announced the number of children in protective custody from the YFZ Ranch has increased to 464 after a young mother gave birth to a baby boy Tuesday.

Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said Texas will officially seek legal custody of the baby. "We still have to run an affidavit of removal for that child," she said.

CPS officials say the mother is underage, but Parker says otherwise. He said the mother, Pamela Jeffs, was born in December 1989. He said "an exhibit" was submitted to the court with that birthdate. It was not a birth certificate but rather a spreadsheet of some sort.

"If you're a minor, you get to stay with your kids," he said. "Right now, we're willing to allow the confusion to exist."

Is 41 of 464 a high percentage of children to have had broken bones? Lori Frasier, a doctor specializing in child abuse at Primary Children's Medical Center, says the numbers alone don't tell the story.

"To make a sweeping generalization that this is high in this population — maybe, maybe not," she said. "My medical opinion is you have to look at each case individually, not as a whole group."

Physicians must consider various aspects before determining whether a fracture equates to child abuse. Such specifics include the age of the child, location of the injury, medical history of the child and an explanation of the injury from a parent or caregiver, she said. In the case of the FLDS children, explanations from parents may not be available because the children are in state custody.

Frasier said it also may be difficult to compare the Texas group of children with other groups.

"My personal opinion is you're dealing with a population of children who aren't sitting around watching TV. I'll bet those kids are out running around a lot, helping work with their families," she said. "They're not the same population as the urban population."

Frasier said if fractures occur in infants who aren't yet walking, that is "almost always abusive."

Wednesday's interim committee meeting was scheduled before the raid on the FLDS ranch as a forum for legislators and policymakers to meet to discuss a variety of issues related to the state's child welfare system.

Set inside the Senate chambers of the historic Austin Capitol, lawmakers sat underneath chandeliers with lights in the shape of the famous Texas star. Experts discussed CPS case loads, retention of workers and many other topics, including the capacity of the state's foster care system, which the Senate chairwoman of the committee described as "already strapped."

"Clearly, the events taking place in Eldorado will have an impact on all the issues we discuss today," said Sen. Jane Nelson.

The senator asked lawmakers to reserve specific questions about the Eldorado investigation to private conversations with Cockerell and his staff.

Cockerell's testimony also focused on the relationship between women and children at the complex. Children were taught to refer to all women at the ranch as "mother," and the women shared maternal duties — right down to breastfeeding one another's babies, he said.

Women removed from the compound did everything they could to stymie the investigation, Cockerell said. "Conducting an investigation with children and their mothers was extremely difficult."

Early in the investigation, DFPS workers placed three types of wristbands on the women and children in an attempt to sort them out, but the women tampered with the wristbands by removing them or rubbing the wording off of them, Cockerell said.

He said they also have reason to believe some of the children do not have parents living at the Eldorado ranch.

Getting an exact count of the number of pregnant underage girls was impossible because women pressured the girls not to take pregnancy tests, Cockerell said. Children also were encouraged to lie about their names and ages, he said.

CPS officials believe that of the 53 girls believed to be between the ages of 14 and 17, more than 30 have children, are pregnant or both. Six of those girls have two children, and two have three children.

Cockerell acknowledged that the call that prompted the investigation, supposedly from a pregnant 16-year-old girl with an abusive husband, "may not be valid" but said that the state still conducts investigations if there is an allegation of abuse or neglect.

The commissioner described examples of workers bonding with the children and attempts to make them comfortable in the makeshift shelters. He said a train was brought into the San Angelo Coliseum to transport the children around the facility and to a nearby football field to play.

"It's interesting to see a state trooper in uniform playing kickball with children," he said. "I saw everyday examples of adults caring for children and relating to them."

The children suffered an outbreak of chicken pox shortly after they were removed, but the infection was spread before the children were placed in shelters, Cockerell said.

Two boys who have turned 18 since being placed in state custody have chosen to stay in the foster facilities with the others. Meisner said it isn't unusual for a teenager to "age" out of the system but choose to remain in state care while they continue their education.

"We have transitional housing programs and many other programs to help them and make sure they are armed with the skills to make it on their own," she said. "Texas has done a lot in this area."

235 comments on this story Cockerell also told the committee that caseworkers will only be assigned a maximum of 15 FLDS children each to oversee. Most caseworkers are assigned more children than that.


Contributing: Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Nancy Perkins, Aaron Falk

E-mail: bwest@desnews.com