Sexual abuse of young girls is no longer a "way of life" at a polygamous sect's ranch thanks to the state's intervention a year ago, a Texas official said Friday.
Anne Heiligenstein, commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said children living at the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado are "safer today" because of the department's efforts to educate the sect about abuse and get it to denounce underage marriage.
"Only time will tell if they honor that pledge, but they certainly know without a doubt that Texas will not idly stand by while they sexually abuse young girls," Heiligenstein said. "Today girls at the ranch know that a 'spiritual marriage' is sexual abuse. They know how to report abuse. And they know that if they call, someone will come, someone will listen and someone will help them. They now have a voice."
Texas authorities launched an investigation at the ranch, home to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, on April 3, 2008, after receiving calls for help, now believed a hoax.
The department's conference call was held as FLDS members gathered at historic Fort Concho in San Angelo to thank the community for support given to women and children kept there last spring. The Associated Press reported about 100 FLDS members gathered at the fort to share stories and heal memories of the event.
Heiligenstein is the first top-ranking Texas official to speak publicly about the child welfare investigation, the largest in U.S. history. Her defense comes amid criticism by child advocates and as Texas lawmakers consider several bills related to the investigation, including one that sets parameters for removing a child versus a perpetrator from a home.
Heiligenstein, who took over as commissioner in December, said her department was required by law to investigate the abuse calls. Once at the ranch, caseworkers found cause for concern, she said. Asked whether mistakes were made, Heiligenstein gave an emphatic "no."
"We did the right thing," she said, based on the seriousness of the allegations and the "pattern of organized deception" encountered at the ranch.
Adults kept changing their names and encouraged children to be uncooperative, she said -- claims the FLDS have denied.
Heiligenstein said officials believed 100 people lived at the ranch -- a vast undercount of the approximately 600 residents there last April. The state took custody of 439 children and, for a time, 130 women. The children were returned to their parents last June after two higher court rulings found insufficient evidence they were at risk of abuse.
Heiligenstein said that 30 percent of girls ages 12 to 17 -- approximately 15 girls, based on department records -- had been "spiritually married," some to men decades older.
Among them: two 12-year-olds spiritually married to FLDS leader Warren S. Jeffs before his arrest in 2006. One of the girls remains in state custody.
The commissioner said 62 percent of families were connected to underage marriages.
"Sexual abuse was not only occurring, but it was widely accepted," she said.
In the end, the department concluded that not all children were at risk of abuse -- a point made by attorneys who successfully appealed to send the children home.
She also acknowledged allegations of physical abuse were later ruled out. "But you don't know that until you do an investigation," she said.
Last June, FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said no underage marriages had occurred for several years -- a timeframe the corresponds with Jeffs' arrest in 2006 -- and the church would not authorize any in the future. Sexual assault charges brought against 10 of 12 men indicted by the Schleicher County Grand Jury involve incidents that took place between 2004 and January 2007.