CONVERSE, Texas Tammy Jessop wasn't anywhere near the YFZ Ranch when Texas authorities raided the sprawling polygamist community just outside of Eldorado in early April on abuse allegations, but she's here now.
"It was frightening to hear about it, read about it and not know what was going on," said Jessop, a 50-year-old member of the Fundamentalist LDS Church and a certified teacher with 24 years of experience teaching seventh grade. "What I did know was that I needed to be here to help."
By now, said Tammy, the entire world knows the story of the raid on the YFZ Ranch that resulted in the removal of 440 children by a Texas judge. Two higher courts overturned that decision, and the judge was ordered to release the children back to their parents, although the families remained under oversight by the court and child welfare officials.
Some of those children and their parents have returned to live at the YFZ Ranch, which FLDS members have transformed into a 1,700-acre community of homes, orchards, gardens, a school, dairy, store, sewing and cabinet shops, a large meetinghouse and the sect's first temple.
For many other FLDS parents and their children, returning to the ranch has been an elusive dream. Tammy Jessop's desire to help extended family brought her to Barbara Jessop's small apartment, where she cares for 11-year-old Benjamin while his mother struggles to regain custody of his 14-year-old sister.
"We need her," said Benjamin of his big sister, who was ordered back into foster care last week by a district judge after allegations arose that the girl is an underage bride to FLDS leader Warren Jeffs. "I miss her."
Video clips and photographs of the traumatic separation between mother and daughter are posted on captivefldschildren.org. Poems and notes lamenting the absence of Barbara's daughter are written on a large white board hanging on a wall at the Jessop apartment. The comments and quotes change often, reflecting the family's reliance on God and their faith.
Watching her child sob and handing her off to child welfare officials was the hardest thing she has ever done, said Barbara. None of the allegations of sexual abuse are true, she said.
"She is a precious, innocent child who needs her mother, and I need her," said Barbara, who suffers from seizures that began several years ago stemming from a benign brain tumor. "I can't describe how I feel. It's very difficult, very hard."
Living anywhere else but at the YFZ Ranch keeps FLDS families in an otherworldly kind of limbo, said Tammy Jessop. Barbara and the other FLDS women living here describe their new accommodations on a suburban cul-de-sac as "camping out."
"We're not moving in. We are being very conservative and trying to find ways to bring in means to help out," Barbara said, noting that an older son found temporary work in the area and the family is looking into the idea of producing wooden toys to sell online.
"But this is not our home. The one thing that's helpful is that we have some family nearby. It means so much to know that Tammy is here to help me," Barbara said. Benjamin's eyes widen at the thought of one day returning to the YFZ Ranch with his mother and siblings where he can do what he misses most and it's not riding bikes or playing with friends.
"I want to work. Whatever I'm asked to do. Working is fun," said Benjamin, whose bright red hair is a family trait. He's doing his best to help his mother and other FLDS family members now, building a chicken coop that sits on a narrow strip of yard and helping to care for the younger children.
Edson Jessop and his family were able to return to the YFZ Ranch in early June, although they remain under the state's child welfare system's oversight. Edson and his wife, Zavenda, are hopeful that CPS will release them from the restrictive plan they have been living under since they retrieved
their four children from various shelters around the state.
For the past couple of months, more families have returned to the ranch and sounds of life as it used to be before the raid are beginning to fill the air. Weeds reach into the lower branches of hundreds of fruit trees, a vivid reminder that the ranch emptied out right at harvest season.
Zavenda bakes bread for the ranch store and Edson's carpenter skills are in high demand. Their children, Zachary, 10; Ephraim, 7; Russell, 6; and Anne, who just turned 4; are thrilled to be home with their parents on the ranch.
On a recent overcast day, the boys and their sister showed a Deseret News reporter and photographer some of their favorite spots to explore and play at the ranch.
The very best place to be, according to Anne, is next to her mother or father. After that, she tags along with her big brothers as they pat the noses of newborn calves, scurry up a mound of gravel for a quick slide down and wind down with a toasted cheese sandwich.
School will start soon, either at the ranch schoolhouse or at home with approved educational packets. Even those FLDS children not yet home at the ranch will receive packets to begin their studies, said several mothers."We'll be grateful when everyone else can come back to the ranch," said Edson. "We miss their contributions and talents. I haven't heard of anyone that doesn't want to come back. There are families all around Texas waiting to be released from their bondage. We miss Barbara and the others. They need to come home."
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