How could hundreds of children go unreported, uncounted and unprotected while living on a sprawling Texas retreat created by a polygamist sect?
That is a question facing West Texas police and state social workers trying to piece together what went on far from public sight at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in rural Schleicher County.
Texas Child Protective Services authorities have taken legal custody of more than 400 children living on the 1,700-acre compound near Eldorado. It was built by leaders of the breakaway sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Police are sorting through allegations of widespread sexual abuse of girls instructed to “spiritually marry” older men on the compound. The ranch was constructed by followers of polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, who was convicted last September as an accomplice in the rape of a 14-year-old in Utah.
Officially, it seems, the children living on the Yearning for Zion Ranch did not exist.
The Texas Department of State Heath Services reports only 385 children between the ages of 5 and 14 were living in Schleicher County as of 2004, according to the most recent report available. In the past few years, the county averaged just 35 reported live births each year.
“There is a legal requirement that the birth of each child born in Texas be registered,” said Carrie Williams of the state health department. “Of course, it is difficult to know about births unless we are told about them.”
According to state law, it is a misdemeanor offense “if a person fails, neglects or refuses to fill out a birth or death certificate and to file the certificate with the local registrar.” Williams said state authorities will check if any births at the ranch were not registered.
Regardless of how it happened, Schleicher County authorities did not realize that the rural county with an official population of just 2,900 actually had more than 1,000 kids of school age.
“Oh, gosh, no. We didn’t know anything about those children. No one told us about them,” said Darlene Huckaby, a district coordinator for the Schleicher Independent School District.
Under Texas law, local education authorities enforce the state’s compulsory-attendance law if they receive a complaint that children are truant. “Nobody’s contacted us,” said Homer Kurtis, president of the Schleicher County School Board of Trustees.
Huckaby said school authorities tried to meet with adults on the ranch to determine how many children were living there. “But it was going to take law enforcement to be able to ask any questions,” she said.
Nor had anyone checked to see if the children on the compound had received immunization from diseases.
“There is a Texas law that states that every person under 18 years of age shall be immunized against vaccine-preventable diseases, but there is no enforcement component of that law,” said Williams.
The children at the Yearning for Zion Ranch only became visible last week after a 16-year-old mother there begged state authorities for help so she and her infant could leave the ranch.
“Until this allegation came up for sexual abuse, they really didn’t have any way to force their way in,” said Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas. “Anytime you would fly over the compound, you would hardly see anybody outside.”
The case of Schleicher County may not be isolated.
“Welcome to the world of polygamy, where about 50,000 people — that’s a pretty good estimate — live in polygamist groups throughout North America,” said religious-cult expert Rick Ross of Jersey City, N.J.
These groups frequently live “off the grid” of government reporting and monitoring programs. “These are often heretofore unknown populations who have lived unseen and unregulated for many years,” Ross said.