At a former frontier army post in western Texas, authorities are interviewing more than 400 children from a compound belonging to a polygamist sect. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, state officials raided the compound over the weekend, after receiving reports of child abuse and forced marriages between underage girls and adult men.
The children taken from the compound near El Dorado, Texas are now at Fort Concho, a former army fort established 150 years ago to protect frontier settlements. Authorities are interviewing them individually to determine each one's name, age and circumstances. More than 130 adult women also left the compound voluntarily with the children.
The spokesperson for the state's Children's Protective Services, Marleigh Meisner, says this is the largest operation of its kind ever carried out in Texas and she said it was made necessary by the reports of child abuse.
"This is not about numbers, this is about children who are at imminent risk of harm, children that we believe have been abused or neglected," Meisner said.
As for the young woman whose call to authorities last week prompted the raid, Meisner says officials have yet to identify her and are not yet sure she is even in the group taken from the compound for questioning.
"It is very, very difficult in these interviews to determine who we have," Meisner said. "Their names change. Many of them have the very same name."
The girl who called authorities claimed to have been forced to marry an older man and that she gave birth to a child at the age of 15. Under Texas law no one under 16 may marry.
The 680-hectare ranch where the compound is located is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This sect split from the much larger Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known also as the Mormon Church, over the issue of polygamy, which the Mormon church abandoned more than a century ago.
The compound in El Dorado was headed by Warren Jeffs, who is currently in jail in Kingman, Arizona, awaiting trial for incest and sexual conduct with a minor. Last year, he was convicted on the charge of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl who was forced to marry her cousin.
Texas authorities are using a search warrant issued Sunday to do a wide search of the El Dorado compound, looking for documents or other evidence that could indicate young women have been forced into marriages.
Officials say most residents at the compound have been cooperative, although one man was arrested for interfering with the investigation.
There are reports a second man was arrested and charged with tampering with physical evidence.
Attorneys representing the sect say church leaders are cooperating with authorities, but they have filed motions to stop the search of the compound because it violates the civil rights of its members. They also say authorities did not have sufficient evidence to obtain the search warrants. A judge will hear their arguments at a hearing Wednesday in San Angelo, Texas.