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13-year-old may have given birth in Eldorado sect, CPS worker says

SAN ANGELO -- A girl as young as 13 may have given birth at a polygamous sect's compound, a child welfare worker testified Thursday night at a marathon custody hearing for 416 children removed from the ranch near Eldorado.

State Child Protective Services investigator Angie Voss said that at least five girls younger than 18 are pregnant or have children.

Voss' testimony concluded an 11-hour hearing that ended at about 9 p.m. The hearing will reconvene at 9:30 a.m. Friday.

CPS officials argued that all the children should be kept from returning to the YFZ Ranch. But lawyers for the children said the state cannot make such a sweeping generalization about all of them and should determine their fates case by case.

During the first four hours of the hearing, only about 15 minutes of testimony was heard as a crowd of lawyers appointed to represent the children lined up to raise legal points.

At one point about 20 lawyers stood in the center aisle of the courtroom to examine a single document. As they examined it, about 30 women from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sat in the courtroom in their old-fashioned prairie dresses trying to decipher what was taking place.

After each document was presented in court, it was then taken two blocks to San Angelo's City Hall, where more lawyers who were watching the hearing via closed-circuit television reviewed it.

The state's case

Voss then began laying out the state's case for keeping the children in custody.

She said many of the girls told CPS caseworkers that no age is too young to marry and that it is their mission to have as many children as possible.

"There was a mind-set that when the prophet came and told them it was time to get married, that was what they were going to do no matter what the age," Voss said.

Many of the girls were eager to begin having children and were thrilled to be living at the 1,691-acre ranch four miles north of Eldorado, she said.

"They said it was an honor to be there. They said, 'This is Zion,'" Voss said.

She has determined that girls as young as 13 have children, Voss said. One 14-year-old and a number of 15-year-olds are pregnant, she testified.

The raid

Voss also described the circumstances of the April 3 raid on the compound.

She said she entered the ranch about 9 p.m. and was taken to a classroom.

Authorities were looking for "Sarah," a 16-year-old girl who had made several calls to a crisis hot line March 29 and 30. Sarah said she had been sexually abused and is the mother of a young child.

An arrest warrant named sect member Dale Barlow, 50, as the girl's husband. He was questioned by Texas Rangers in Arizona last week but was not arrested.

Sect officials first claimed that no one named Sarah lived at the ranch, Voss testified. Merril Jessop, the ranch leader, eventually started bringing young girls in for questioning by investigators.

After interviewing several girls, Voss testified, she learned that at least three teenage girls named Sarah live on the ranch and one of them has a young child.

But sect officials never produced the girl. After questioning more girls, investigators learned that Sarah had been seen working in the sect's garden four days before the raid. Voss testified that authorities still haven't located her.

Tense moments

As CPS caseworkers continued to interview girls that Friday, April 4, the tension inside the compound began to mount, Voss said.

Later that night, Texas Rangers told CPS caseworkers that they should suspend interviews because they couldn't guarantee the caseworkers' safety.

Voss said sect members with night-vision goggles were perched in trees and on roofs. But, she said, she never saw sect members with firearms. She said she became more nervous when authorities moved a SWAT team and an armored personnel carrier into the compound.

"Things were getting very scary to me," Voss said.

The decision was then made to move the children out of the compound. Initially, the mothers in the sect resisted, but Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran called Jessop and put the sect leader on a speaker phone.

Jessop told the women to let their children leave the ranch.

"They just stopped, and then they were cooperating," Voss said. "They even helped lead them to the buses."

Different names

As they continued to interview the children, caseworkers kept getting different names.

"They would give one name on the bus and another at the civic center," Voss said.

When asked if she believes that the children should return to the compound, Voss said they should not because the sect members do not believe they are doing anything wrong.

In earlier testimony, Texas Department of Public Safety investigator Danny Crawford said investigators had found the "Bishop’s Record" in the safe of sect member Richard Barlow.

The records detailed 38 families living in the compound and showed that one man has 22 wives. The records also showed that many men have underage wives. One 54-year-old man has a 17-year-old wife. A 46-year-old man has a 17-year-old wife and children ranging from 19 to 1 year old.

Crawford testified that it is difficult to determine which children belong to which mother.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints splintered from the Mormon Church when the latter rejected polygamy in 1890. FLDS members practice arranged marriages between young girls and older men. Most of the FLDS' estimated 10,000 members live in the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.

The group's prophet and leader, Warren Jeffs, has been sentenced to two terms of five years to life in prison in Utah for forcing an underage girl to marry an older cousin.