HOUSTON – Texas officials said Monday that they had taken more than 400 children into temporary state custody while they continued investigating allegations that girls at a remote polygamist compound were being sexually abused by men.
“This is the biggest single removal in the history of this agency,” Child Protective Services spokesman Darrell Azar said Monday evening. “No one can remember anything quite like it. We had enough information to show a judge that many of these children had in fact been abused and others were in jeopardy.”
The decision to take temporary custody of the 401 children represented a significant ratcheting up of state intervention. Child-welfare officials initially placed just 18 children under state control and moved others to a more neutral location to interview them.
Azar said he would not discuss the details of the abuses state officials uncovered, but affidavits detailing the state’s findings might become public this week.
State officials said 133 women from the compound voluntarily had chosen to stay with the children instead of returning to the YFZ Ranch – a gated-off compound outside the tiny Texas town of Eldorado. It was built by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a 10,000-member sect that broke away from the Mormon Church in the 1930s after Mormon leaders barred polygamy.
The religious sect’s self-styled prophet, Warren Jeffs, was convicted in Utah last year of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl who was promised to her cousin. He is held in Arizona, where he faces similar charges.
State troopers and child-protective workers descended on the secretive Texas compound in force Thursday night after receiving a report that a 16-year-old-girl had been sexually and physically abused.
A subsequent search warrant revealed that investigators suspected the girl was forced to marry a 50-year-old man and gave birth to his child eight months ago, when she was 15.
As of late Monday, state officials said they had not found the girl, but they raised the possibility that she was among the 401 children in state custody at a fort in the nearby city of San Angelo, about 40 minutes to the north.
Officials said the girls and women, who were wearing long pioneer-style dresses, were frightened by meeting outsiders, making interviews difficult. For most, the talks were their first exposure to the outside world.
State officials said they had arrested one man at the YFZ compound – which stands for Yearning for Zion – on a charge of obstructing justice.
They did not arrest the man whose alleged relationship with the girl launched the initial complaint: Dale Barlow, a registered sex offender who pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit sexual assault on a minor in Arizona in 2005. His probation officer told the Salt Lake Tribune that Barlow remained in Arizona and claimed to not even know the girl accusing him of abuse in Texas.