SAN ANGELO, Texas – At least half the mothers taken from a polygamist sect's ranch and put in child foster care have now been declared adults, significantly chipping at agency statistics that seemed to demonstrate the widespread sexual abuse of underage girls.
Attorneys for the state's Child Protective Services agency have been conceding, one by one, that many of the mothers authorities cited as evidence that the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints committed widespread sexual abuse of girls are actually adults.
They had admitted by midday Thursday that 15 of the 31 mothers listed as underage are adults; one is actually 27. A few are as young as 18, but many are at least 20.
Another girl listed as an underage mother is 14, but her attorney said in court she is not pregnant and does not have a child.
CPS officials in April raided a ranch run by the FLDS, contending that a widespread pattern of underage girls forced into marriages and sex put all the children — more than 440 — at risk. Those children, ranging from infants to teenagers, have been the subject this week of custody hearings designed to help parents learn what they must do to get their children back.
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More mothers listed as underage are likely to be reclassified as adults in coming days.
CPS spokesmen did not immediately return a phone call from The Associated Press seeking comment.
On Wednesday, child welfare authorities returned once again to the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, asking to look for children who may have arrived since the April raid. FLDS members turned them away because they didn't have a court order.
"The people they are looking for, I cannot produce them, because they don't exist," said Willie Jessop, a sect elder. But "if they bring in their heavy law enforcement and raid us again, I cannot stop them."
Child welfare spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said the agency wanted to investigate reports of children who may have arrived at the ranch in the weeks since the children were taken and put in foster care.
The child welfare agency could seek a court order to force ranch residents to allow officials in, but one had not been granted by mid-day Thursday.
Jessop said he wasn't certain whether children were on the 1,700-acre ranch. He added that if there were, they would have arrived with parents who came to comfort relatives after the April 3 raid, which was conducted with a search warrant.
Jessop said ranch residents would allow authorities to investigate any legitimate claims of abuse.
"If they have an honest complaint, we'll be honest, but we were lied to," said Jessop, arguing that authorities have never produced the alleged teenage girl whose allegations of abuse first led to the raid and the removal of all sect children more than six weeks ago.
Jessop did allow journalists to enter ranch property Wednesday afternoon. One woman in a lavender prairie dress was gardening in front of one of the sprawling log cabin-style homes. Another man was moving cows around the ranch's dairy.
No children were visible on the grounds.
The school house, where hundreds of FLDS children once attended class, was empty. Calendars still displayed the month of April and photos of the sect's jailed prophet, Warren Jeffs, were in every room.
In one sign that sect members may be thinking of flexing their political muscle, members on Wednesday requested up to 600 voter registration cards from Schleicher County.
That is something they have not done in the five years since the ranch was transformed from a small game ranch to a $20.5 million self-contained community.
Schleicher County has an estimated 2,800 residents, and the sect property is the third-biggest taxpayer in the rural ranching county, accounting for roughly 18 percent of its tax base. County officials had no role in the raid, aside from sheriff's deputies assisting state law enforcement.
"As residents of the state, we have to take responsibility for part of this," said Jessop. "We were naive enough to believe there was good people in government to protect our rights."