ELDORADO, Texas – Child welfare officials are scrambling to find foster homes for dozens of girls removed from a secretive West Texas religious retreat built by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs after a 16-year-old living there complained of physical abuse.
Officials from Texas Child Protective Services, escorted by state troopers, took 52 girls, ages 6 months to 17 years, from the remote retreat on Friday afternoon.
By the end of the day, 18 were put legally into state custody, and CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said interviews would continue Saturday. A warrant has been issued for at least one individual.
The girls put in state custody were believed to be in danger, Meisner said. "Those are the ones we believe have been abused or they are in imminent risk of harm, and it would not be safe for those children to remain in the compound," she said.
Child welfare officials were looking for foster homes for the girls, most of whom have rarely been outside the insular world of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They were being housed for now at a civic center, she said.
"We're dealing with children that aren't accustomed to the outside world, so we're trying to be very sensitive to their needs," Meisner said.
The investigation began with a call Monday alleging physical abuse of a 16-year-old girl living there, Meisner said. Authorities first arrived at the compound Thursday evening. They interviewed and searched through the night.
On Friday, a search warrant and arrest warrant were issued.
The search warrant sought records dealing with the birth of children to a 16-year-old and any records listing a marriage between a 50-year-old man and the girl, according to the San Angelo Standard-Times, which cited court records released late Friday in Tom Green County.
The individual listed in the arrest warrant had not been located by Friday evening, said Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Tela Mange. She said she could not reveal whose name was on the warrant.
A small white bus that left the compound accompanied by state troopers was filled with children, Meisner said. She could not immediately say how many.
The bus was filled with what appeared to be mostly girls, dressed in conservative long-sleeve dresses.
The ranch covers roughly 1,700 acres. It is north of this two-stoplight town, down a narrow paved road. Authorities blocked access to the compound's gate, keeping onlookers miles away.
State officials said they did not know how many people lived at the retreat, but local officials in 2006 put the number at about 150, as members of the reclusive church moved from a community on the Arizona-Utah line.
The congregation, known as FLDS, has been led by Jeffs since his father's death in 2002. It is one of several groups that split from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based in Salt Lake City, decades after it renounced polygamy in 1890.
In November, Jeffs was sentenced to two consecutive sentences of five years to life in prison in Utah for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl who wed her cousin in an arranged marriage in 2001.
In Arizona, Jeffs is charged as an accomplice with four counts each of incest and sexual conduct with a minor stemming from two arranged marriages between teenage girls and their older male relatives. He is jailed in Kingman, Arizona, awaiting trial.
The Eldorado retreat, about 160 miles northwest of San Antonio, is on a former exotic game ranch. The church bought the property in 2004 for $700,000 and began an ambitious construction program anchored by an 80-foot-tall, gleaming white temple.