Texas officials said Monday that they had taken more than 400 children into temporary state custody while they continued investigating allegations that girls at a remote polygamist compound were being sexually abused by men.
"This is the biggest single removal in the history of this agency," Child Protective Services spokesman Darrell Azar said Monday evening. "No one can remember anything quite like it. We had enough information to show a judge that many of these children had in fact been abused and others were in jeopardy."
Texas' decision to take temporary custody of the 401 children represented a significant ratcheting up of state intervention -- child welfare officials had initially placed 18 children under state control and merely moved others to a more neutral location to interview them.
Azar said he could not discuss the details of the abuses that state officials allegedly uncovered, but affidavits detailing the state's findings could become public as soon as today.
State officials said 133 women had chosen to stay by the children for now instead of returning to the YFZ ("Yearning for Zion") Ranch, a gated compound outside the tiny Texas cattle town of Eldorado. It was built by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a 10,000-member sect that broke away from the Mormon Church in the 1930s after Mormon leaders barred polygamy.
The sect's self-styled prophet, Warren Jeffs, was convicted in Utah last year of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl who was forced to marry her 19-year-old cousin. Jeffs is being held in Arizona, where he faces similar charges.
State troopers and child protective workers descended on the secretive Texas compound in force Thursday night after receiving a report that a 16-year-old-girl had been sexually and physically abused.
A search warrant revealed that investigators suspected that the girl was forced to marry a 50-year-old man and that she had given birth to his child eight months ago, when she was 15.
As of late Monday, state officials said they had not found the girl, but raised the possibility that she was among the 401 children now in state custody at a historic fort in the nearby city of San Angelo, about 40 minutes to the north.
The girls and women, who were wearing long pioneer-style dresses, were frightened to meet outsiders, making interviews difficult, officials said. For most, the talks were their first exposure to the outside world.
"This is a very strange situation for them. They have been removed from a very isolated society," Azar said.
"It is difficult [for case workers] to identify them because many have the same names. It is hard to identify who people are and how they are related," Azar said.
State officials said they had arrested one man at the YFZ compound on suspicion of obstructing justice.
But they but had not arrested the man whose alleged abuse of a girl launched the initial complaint: Dale Barlow, a registered sex offender who pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit sexual assault on a minor in Arizona in 2005. His probation officer told the Salt Lake Tribune that he remained in Arizona, and claimed he did not know the girl accusing him of abuse in Texas.