San Antonio_More than half the girls ages 14 to 17 who were taken from a polygamist compound in west Texas have children or are pregnant, state officials said Monday.
A total of 53 girls in that age group are in state custody after a raid 3 1/2 weeks ago at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado. Of those girls, 31 either have children or are pregnant, said Child Protective Services spokesman Darrell Azar. Two are pregnant, he said; it was unclear whether either of them already has children.
"It shows you a pretty distinct pattern, that it was pretty pervasive," he said.
State officials took custody of all 463 children at the ranch controlled by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, saying a pattern of teen girls forced into underage "spiritual" marriages and sex with much older men created an unsafe environment for the sect's children.
Under Texas law, children under the age of 17 generally cannot consent to sex with an adult. A girl can get married with parental permission at 16, but none of these girls is believed to have a legal marriage under state law.
Church officials have denied that any children were abused at the ranch and say the state's actions are a form of religious persecution.
The sect's spokesman, Rod Parker, said he does not believe the state's count is accurate. He said that from talking to ranch residents, he believes at least 17 of the girls may actually be adults but have been labeled by the state agency as minors.
Civil liberties groups and lawyers for the children have criticized the state for sweeping all the children, from nursing infants to teen boys, into foster care when only teen girls are alleged to have been sexually abused.
No one has been charged since the raid, which was prompted by a series of calls to a domestic abuse hot line, purportedly from a 16-year-old forced into a marriage recognized only by the sect with a man three times her age. That girl has not been found and authorities are investigating whether the call was a hoax.
On Monday, Child Protective Services also revised its total count of children in state custody to 463, up one from Friday. Azar said the change resulted from finally getting the children out of the San Angelo Coliseum and into foster facilities around the state, where they were able to get a more accurate count. Of those 463 children, 250 are girls and 213 are boys.
The sect believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven. Its leader, Warren Jeffs, is revered as a prophet. Jeffs was convicted last year in Utah of forcing a 14-year-old girl into marriage with an older cousin.