Child brides in Texas endure abuse in ‘spiritual marriages’

Underage girls belonging to a cult in Texas, USA, are forced to marry older men in ‘spiritual marriages’ and suffer forms of child abuse, reports the Guardian UK and Time Magazine.

Source: The Guardian

April 10 2008

Ed Pilkington in New York

Children removed from sect in Texas tell of girls forced into sex with older men

· 416 youngsters in state custody after ranch raids

· Hunt goes on for teenager who alerted authorities


Interviews with hundreds of children removed from a polygamist sect in Texas have revealed that several underage girls were forced into “spiritual marriage” with much older men as soon as they reached puberty and were then made pregnant, according to investigators.

A total of 416 children, mainly girls, have now been taken into state custody after five days of raids on the Yearn for Zion ranch in Eldorado, west Texas. Court documents reveal the children were removed for fear they were at risk of “emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse”.

A further 139 women left the ranch voluntarily to accompany the girls, and are being held with them. A local court has granted state custody of all the children until a hearing later this month.

The 1,700-acre ranch is the retreat of a group from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a 10,000-strong splinter sect that broke with the main Mormon church when it denounced polygamy in the 1890s. The compound was built in 2004 in a remote location in the prairies by Warren Jeffs, the then “prophet” of the sect who is currently in jail in Arizona awaiting trial over charges relating to the arranged marriages of three teenage girls. He has already been sentenced to 10 years to life imprisonment in the state of Utah.

The raids were sparked by a telephone call from a 16-year-old girl inside the Yearn for Zion compound to a local family violence shelter on March 29. She said she had been forced to become the seventh “spiritual wife” of a man aged 50, who made her pregnant with a child, now aged eight months, and then made her pregnant for a second time.

The girl said other girls, some as young as 13, had been forced to have sex with older men for procreation. She said she had been beaten by her “husband” so badly that on one occasion several of her ribs were broken. The beatings included hitting her on the chest and choking her, the affidavit says, while another woman held her baby.

The police are searching for the man, Dale Barlow. They are also continuing to search for the girl, whose identity has not been released and who has yet to be found among the 416 children taken into care.

The court papers give new details about the isolated life of the sect.

The compound is self-sufficient, in order to avoid contact with the “outsiders’ world”. In addition to a temple, the ranch includes a cement factory, a school, a cheese factory and medical centre. Women wear home-sewn dresses and are not allowed to wear red, which Jeffs decreed was reserved for Jesus, or cut their hair. They live on a diet of dairy produce, vegetables, berries, nuts and honey.

Sect members were only allowed out of the compound for emergencies. The 16-year-old who sounded the alarm told the shelter that she had been warned that if she left the ranch, “outsiders will hurt her, force her to cut her hair, to wear makeup and to have sex with lots of men”, the documents say.

Several of the teenage girls were found to have children or are pregnant. Many could not spell their last names or state their birth date.

The sect believes that polygamy for men is an essential religious practice. Underage girls were married to older men of the church’s choosing, the affidavit says.

The leader of the ranch, Merrill Jessop, has called for a public outcry over the raids, saying the “hauling off of women and children matches anything in Russia or Germany”.

Lawyers for the church have filed a court petition to quash the searches on the grounds they are unconstitutional as the authorities lack sufficient evidence to justify the intrusion.

A related article was published in Time Magazine.

Source: Time Magazine

Thursday, Apr. 24, 2008

By David Von Drehle

The Texas Polygamist Sect: Uncoupled and Unchartered

David Williams met the modern world in a little town square shaded by pecan and oak trees in remote West Texas, and it was hard to know which found the other more bewildering. The 32-year-old welder wore his hair slicked in a bygone style and sometimes stammered as he spoke in a flat monotone about prophets and the trials sent by God to test him. His cryptic words were directed to a group of people holding television cameras and microphones and tape recorders, people whose impressions of Williams then flashed by satellite and digital relays to households around the world.

Williams had driven 1,200 miles (1,900 km) to Eldorado, Texas, in the hope that a brief encounter with modernity would allow him–and others like him–to push it once more far from his life. He is a believer in an antique and renegade Mormon sect that has endeavored for more than a century to keep polygamy alive in North America. His three sons were among the 437 children removed in early April from the sect’s ranch in Texas, and Williams was doing his part to get them back.

But as he and other men of the sect tried to explain themselves to the 21st century, it was as if no common language existed. One man, who gave his name only as Rulon, declared, “We have broken no laws”–though the laws against having multiple wives are more than a century old. “I am a loving and honorable father,” said Williams–though he has not seen his children in years, by order of the sect’s leader, Warren Jeffs. Asked how he can revere Jeffs as a prophet even after the man drove him from his home, his family and the community he grew up in, Williams first spoke of a “test” he was given, but then words failed him. “I don’t … I don’t … without the full truth being understood, putting a small amount of information in it does not complete a whole picture,” he said. “So I will not get into that.”

And that’s the whole strange, sad story in a nutshell. Two worlds have collided: the one most of us live in and the separate reality long nurtured in remote enclaves by sects of Mormon fundamentalists. The rest of the country was both appalled and fascinated after Texas authorities raided the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) ranch in Eldorado, Texas, on April 3, gawking at the sight of women seemingly dressed for Little House on the Prairie, whose modest appearance was jarring with their sexually aberrant lifestyle. First came the jokes, then some hard realities sank in. Hundreds of children were being separated from the only families they ever knew. Shuttled from one temporary facility to another, they are now being dispersed throughout Texas’ already overtaxed foster-care system, from the Panhandle all the way to Houston. Why? Because an anonymous call from inside the ranch alleged that the kids were in danger of physical and emotional abuse, given the ranch culture of young girls, older men and arranged marriages. Nearly a month after the raid, the complicated criminal investigation continues, and the only public details of the alleged child abuse involve several teenage mothers found at the ranch who were described in a request for a second search warrant, a request quickly granted by the judge in the case.

This is the latest scene in a long saga. In the late 19th century, the U.S. government told the Latter-Day Saints that the price of admission to a rich American future was the renunciation of polygamy. The official church and the vast majority of Mormons were happy to come along, but not these few. All these years later, words fail. Modernity comes speaking the language of women’s rights, of the dignity and self-determination of children, of limits on the authority of fathers–and even on the authority of prophets. For people who have chosen to sit the last century out, this doesn’t compute.

Nor does the state of Texas seem to understand, entirely, what it’s dealing with. At first glance, the YFZ ranch has the look of other compounds built by apocalyptic cults led by charismatic tyrants. But this is a group with a tangled history many generations deep. Renegade sects have kept polygamy alive by settling far from neighbors in places like the desert canyon lands of Utah and Arizona, the villages of northern Mexico and the alpine valleys of western Canada. They have intermarried and interbred to the point that, in the words of author Jon Krakauer, their “relationships are almost impossible to make sense of without a flowchart.” One figure in Krakauer’s best-selling history of the sects, Under the Banner of Heaven, was both “sister wife” to her stepmother and stepgrandmother to herself. They are insular and suspicious. Williams did manage to get that much across in his meeting with the media. “What honorable father and parent would not give their all to preserve their children from a traumatic, hostile to them, even abhorrent society?” he asked. “What honorable father and parent would not give their all to protect the innocence of their children?” In 1953 authorities tried to root out the fathers and rescue the children, but after a couple of years of costly court cases and a tide of public opinion in favor of keeping families together–no matter how unconventional–the two worlds essentially agreed to ignore each other.

The families are trying similar tactics this time. They have created websites rich with photographs of tearful mothers, menacing deputies and frightened kids. All they desire, one site explains, is “the privilege of worshiping God as guaranteed by the Constitution.” But live and let live is more complicated now because the buffers have disappeared. The verge of the Grand Canyon is no longer the middle of nowhere–it’s the bridge from Lake Powell to Las Vegas. The jealousies and rivalries that have always boiled through polygamous communities now have ways of commanding attention. Secrets are getting out. And those alleged secrets–which range from child abuse and welfare fraud to tax evasion–have become too numerous to overlook any longer. It’s hard to find a place anymore where the law will ignore you while you blatantly ignore the law.

The prophet of the YFZ ranch is himself in prison. For several years, Jeffs, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), directed his flock and arranged “celestial marriages” (no man with fewer than three wives can attain the Kingdom of God, the FLDS believes) as a fugitive from the law. But he was arrested in 2006 in Las Vegas and convicted last year in St. George, Utah–not on polygamy charges, which have been difficult to prosecute in court, but on charges of being an accomplice to rape after commanding an underage follower to marry an older man against her wishes. The Eldorado prosecution follows from that case: a fresh allegation concerning an underage, unwilling bride pushed authorities to crack down hard.

The government calls it a matter of child welfare; the sect calls it religious persecution. Caught in the middle is Texas judge Barbara Walther, who was asked to weigh requests from the parents to hold twice-daily prayer meetings with the children and to reunite nursing mothers with the 77 kids who are under age 2. Prosecutors worried that the prayer meetings might be used to influence the children “in a way to impede the ongoing investigation,” but Walther’s suggestion that mainstream Mormons might serve as neutral monitors was turned down flat by the official church. Church spokesman Scott Trotter told the Salt Lake Tribune that the beliefs of the FLDS long ago diverged from orthodox Mormonism and, “in fact, many in these isolated communities view us with some hostility as part of the outside world they have rejected.” For the nursing mothers, the judge offered a lesson in contemporary feminism: “Every day in this country there are thousands of mothers who, after six weeks’ maternity leave, must go back to work–and they deal with this issue.”

Wreckage from this collision won’t be tidied up anytime soon. Walther has placed her trust in the modern science of DNA–Williams was among the men who went to Eldorado to have his mouth swabbed for a sample. Mapping the intricately interwoven gene pool of the FLDS won’t solve her most immediate dilemma, though. Until investigators determine what did take place on the ranch, the judge will be left in the same troubled place where she began: with a lot of mothers who love their babies, and children who miss their homes, all caught between a world they fear and a world that is unraveling.

With reporting by Reported by Hilary Hylton / Eldorado




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