Never Too Young to Marry, Sect Girls Say

Texas official testifies girls said teen marriages and pregnancies were OK.

ByABC News
April 17, 2008, 12:47 PM

SAN ANGELO, Texas, April 18, 2008 — -- A child protection supervisor testified Thursday that girls at a West Texas polygamous ranch believed that teen marriages were OK and that girls from the compound had gotten pregnant when they were as young as 13.

The girls believed there was "no age too young to be married and they wanted to have as many babies as they could," said Angie Voss, a supervisor of investigations at the Texas Department of Child Protective Services.

Voss testified during a massive hearing in one of the largest child protection cases in U.S. history, an ad hoc, unwieldy process that will eventually determine the fate of 416 children taken from the Yearning for Zion Ranch. The hearing will resume today.

Thurdays' hearing, filled to capacity with more than 350 lawyers for the state, the children and their parents, dragged on into the night after a sputtering start.

At times, it seemed the process threatened to fall into chaos as lawyers jumped from their seats to object and Judge Barbara Walther struggled to maintain order.

"It's a real monumental task -- the judge is essentially flying by the seat of her pants," said Eric Robertson, who represents a 2-year-old currently being housed in the San Angelo Coliseum.

Voss said it would not be safe to send the children -- including the boys -- back to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints compound because the culture there encourages marrying underage girls to older men in "spiritual marriages."

"I believe the boys are groomed to be perpetrators," she said.

Children on the Yearning for Zion Ranch also told a Texas state worker that they had seen the 16-year-old girl who reportedly called a domestic abuse hot line saying that she was beaten and sexually abused by her 49-year-old husband, spurring an investigation of child abuse on the polygamous compound, officials testified Thursday.

The children confirmed that she did have a baby but said that they did not know where she was, Voss said on the stand Thursday afternoon.

"It was a very scary environment, intimidating," said Voss, who visited the ranch the night of April 3. "I was afraid."

"I saw men all around," Voss said. "It felt like the schoolhouse was surrounded."

Voss said that when she first arrived at the ranch and asked to see the girl who made the reported phone call, the men at the gates denied anyone of her description existed.

Eventually, they were allowed inside and taken to the schoolhouse, where they asked to meet with all girls who were younger than 18.

A few of the girls who spoke with CPS investigators said that they had seen the teen the CPS workers were looking for within the previous week, Voss testified. They confirmed that she did have a baby but said that they did not know where she was.

The massive custody case of 416 children taken from a polygamist sect opened Thursday to a chorus of complaints and motions that indicate it will take a long time to sort out the children's future.

Among all the men dressed in suits in the San Angelo courtroom were about a dozen mothers from the sect dressed in their distinctive pioneer style ankle length dresses and a handful of men from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

During the first 40 minutes of the hearing, Walther was confronted with the enormity of the case the largest child custody case in the nation's history and the difficulty in keeping order in such a complicated proceeding.

Lawyers repeatedly rose from the section where the public generally sits to make objections to the process that was just beginning, and Walther would tell them to sit down.

At one point a lawyer who said she represented an 8-year-old girl objected, protesting that each child was entitled to an individual hearing and to be able to present evidence.

A clearly frustrated Walther assured the roomful of lawyers they would be able present evidence.

"Give us a chance to get this going. Let's just try to start this process before you say its not going to work," she snapped.

The judge will eventually have to decide whether each child gets an individual hearing.

"It's embarrassing compared to how cases are usually handled," said D'Ann Johnson, a lawyer who represents three of the mothers and works for the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aide. "It's very difficult for justice to be done in this structure."

Robertson told that he had spoken with a woman who claimed to be his client's mother, but had no way to verify whether she was telling the truth.

The children were removed from the sect's Yearning for Zion Ranch during a weeklong raid that began April 3.

Rod Parker, a spokesperson for the sect, spoke about the teen whose call prompted the raid.

"The information called in is easily checked out," said Parker. "We see no evidence of any effort to corroborate before the search."

Nevertheless, officials say they have found teenagers under the age of 16 who are pregnant or who have babies, and that they fear that returning the children to the sect would put them and other children in danger of abuse.

To bolster that point, police Sgt. Danny Crawford, who took part in the search of the compound, said he found documents in a safe on the ranch that listed husbands and wives. It included several adult men with wives who were 16, Crawford testified.

Among the names he read from the list were Jackson Jessop, who had a wife listed as 17 and a son who was 8 months old. Crawford also cited Abraham Jeffs, 35, whose wife was listed as 16 years old.

Lawyers for Texas Child Protective Services asked the court today to require DNA tests of all the parents from the sect's ranch so they could compare it to DNA of the children and establish parent and child relationships. State officials have said it has been difficult to determine who are the parents of individual children.