Authorities have removed 167 children from the Fundamentalist LDS Church's compound near Eldorado, Texas, after a raid over allegations of child sex abuse on the Utah-based polygamous sect's ranch.
School buses and church buses commandeered by law enforcement ferried the children from the YFZ Ranch. Some of the girls, wearing the prairie-style dresses so common to the fundamentalist border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., appeared nervous. Child protective services workers said they range in age from 6 months to 17 years.
Authorities said 18 girls were immediately placed in state protective custody.
"We concluded they had been abused or were at immediate risk of future abuse," said Darrell Azar, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. "Under Texas law, either one is grounds for removal."
The children are being kept at a civic center where cots have been set up and local churches are providing food.
"There's 96 boys and 71 girls," Randy Mankin, the editor of the Eldorado Success newspaper, said late Friday night. "I understand there's some underage girls that are pregnant."
The children are being interviewed by child welfare workers to determine whether they need to be placed in protective custody or foster care. A court hearing will be held on Monday, Mankin said.
"We're dealing with children that aren't accustomed to the outside world, and so we're trying to be very, very sensitive to their needs," said Marleigh Meisner with child protective services.
More people will be questioned on the YFZ Ranch today.
Meanwhile, police are also serving a pair of warrants for a man accused of marrying and fathering a child with a 16-year-old girl.
"We are now serving search and arrest warrants at the property for individuals covered in those warrants," said Tom Vinger with the Texas Department of Public Safety. "Nobody's been arrested at this time."
The warrant reportedly seeks records dealing with the birth of children to a 16-year-old girl, and any records of a marriage between a 50-year-old man and the girl. Texas authorities said their investigation began when a 16-year-old girl who lives on the YFZ Ranch called child protective services earlier this week.
"She said she was being sexually abused," Schleicher County Attorney Raymond Loomis Jr. told the Deseret Morning News.
Azar said the girl also claimed to have suffered physical abuse.
State and local law enforcement officers went to the ranch late Thursday with an armored personnel carrier, the Eldorado Success reported. Police set up roadblocks and blocked off the entrances and exits to the compound. Air space above the ranch was restricted, preventing small planes or helicopters from flying overhead.
Police described the FLDS people on the ranch as cooperative.
"They're being cooperative and providing us with all the people we need to speak to," said Vinger. "It's sensitive, but it's going well."
The YFZ Ranch is the site of the polygamous sect's first-ever temple, which was completed in 2006. "YFZ" stands for "Yearning for Zion," after a song penned by FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.
The group purchased the 1,600-acre property several years ago under the guise that it would be a "hunting retreat." Since then, a small city has been built on the outskirts of Eldorado, a western Texas prairie town. Few outsiders are allowed onto the ranch, but viewed from the air the growth of the YFZ Ranch is stunning. Men, women and children are frequently seen working in the fields or constructing buildings.
Faced with the history of the deadly stand-off at Waco, Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran has tried to build relationships with members of the FLDS Church. He has kept in communication with them during key moments of the government crackdown on the polygamous church. It was Doran who broke the news to them about Jeffs' arrest and the polygamist's conviction in Utah last year on rape as an accomplice.
Jeffs is serving two 5-to-life sentences for performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin. He is currently in Arizona, where he faces charges of sexual misconduct and incest, accusing him of performing more child-bride marriages. Prior to his capture, Jeffs was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.
Doran declined to comment on the raid when reached at the compound by the Deseret Morning News on Friday. Texas child welfare workers insisted this was not religious persecution or a crackdown on polygamy.
"We are only interested in protecting children from abuse and neglect," Azar said. "Child protective services has treated this case just like any of the thousands of cases we handle each year. The only difference is the setting and the number of children involved."
In southern Utah, Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith was consulting with Texas authorities on the raid.
"I've been working with Sheriff Doran, giving him background information on people and the group," he told the Deseret Morning News.