Social workers and law enforcement officers in Texas are investigating the polygamist sect whose ranch compound near the small town of El Dorado was raided by authorities April 4. State officials removed nearly 500 children from the Yearning for Zion ranch and sent them to facilities all around the state. Authorities say they are convinced children were being abused physically and sexually at the ranch, but civil libertarians say this could be a case of religious intolerance. VOA's Greg Flakus has more from our Houston bureau.
The ranch near El Dorado was owned and operated by a sect called the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of the much larger Mormon Church. The offshoot sect practices polygamy, something the Mormons dropped from their religion over a century ago.
The sect, known as FLDS, lived apart, communal style, and had very little contact with neighbors.
But Texas authorities knew about the sect's leader, Warren Jeffs, who is currently in jail in Kingman, Arizona, charged with incest and sexual conduct with a minor. They have also heard from women who left the group in Arizona who describe abuses they witnessed there.
But civil rights groups say authorities had little evidence of wrongdoing at the Texas ranch when they staged the largest removal of children in state history.
"What is the real agenda here," asks James Harrington, Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. "Is it really to find child abuse and prosecute it or is it also really to break up this religious sect?"
He notes that even though state officials say they had an undercover agent inside the compound, they based their request for a search warrant on an anonymous phone call, allegedly from a 16-year-old girl at the ranch who said she was forced into a marriage with an older man. Officials have not been able to produce the girl and admit the call may have been a hoax.
Harrington says authorities and the judge who issued the warrant were determined to disrupt the sect first and look for evidence to justify the raid later. "The warrant they got was a sham, but it has not stopped them from dispersing the kids around Texas and taking them away from their mothers and it raises a lot of questions, certainly, about legality," he said.
But the situation is viewed very differently by Jim Shields, Executive Director of the Houston-based Justice for Children, a national advocacy group that helps victims of child abuse. He says even if the warrant was based on false information, what Child Protective Services, or CPS, is doing now is very much justified.
"Apparently what they found in there was enough for them to believe and to remove the children. That is why we give CPS these extraordinary powers. We want them to err on the side of children," he said.
Civil libertarians also question the massive removal of children from the El Dorado compound, but Shields says authorities had to get the children away from the isolated ranch in order to effectively find out about abuse.
"They saw it was such a mess that they had to separate them. You do not investigate a crime when the victim and the alleged perpetrator are sitting in the same room, especially when it comes to children," he said.
Some of the women from the FLDS compound have spoken to reporters in recent days, condemning the removal of the children.
"This is the first time in their life that they have been screamed at and called liars." one woman said.
"The interrogation on those young children has done so much damage," said another.
But Jim Shields, who has worked with women who left the sect in Arizona, says the men who run the sect have terrorized them into being docile.
"Understand that these women know no other life. They know nothing, so in their minds, we are the crazy ones, we are the ones on the outside who are nuts. They are the ones living this lifestyle and they have been told and they believe, maybe, that their life is much better than your life or my life," he said.
Shields says women who have escaped and undergone therapy describe physical and psychological abuse against both women and children to keep them in line.
Texas authorities say they are finding evidence of abuse, including numerous cases of children who have suffered broken bones and other injuries. Of the 53 girls between 14 and 17 years of age taken from the ranch, 31 have children or are pregnant. Court hearings, at which each child is represented by a state-appointed attorney, are expected to continue until June 5.