ELDORADO, Texas (Reuters) - When a renegade Mormon sect was looking for a quiet place to live out its polygamous beliefs, it made a Texas-sized mistake when it picked this state to move to.
Texas responded by raising the age at which children can legally get married with parental consent, and law enforcement agencies immediately put the sect in its crosshairs.
The result was raids this month that left 463 minors in state hands or foster care. With judges saying they will hear abuse cases individually, the sect’s practices are sure of thorough legal scrutiny.
“They made a big mistake when they came here,” said Harvey Hilderbran, who represents this part of Texas in the state legislature. “We didn’t invite those folks to Texas but by God we expect them to obey our law.”
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), founded in the 1930s after the mainstream Mormon church renounced polygamy in 1890, believes a man has a God-sanctioned right to marry several women.
It has long-established communities in remote parts of Arizona, Utah and Canada, and is believed to number a few thousand members.
Authorities in Arizona and Utah have accused it of coercing young girls into marrying much older men. Its leader, Warren Jeffs, was convicted in Utah last year as an accomplice to rape for forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her cousin.
“With action being taken in Arizona and Utah, it seems like they decided to branch out,” said Benjamin Bistline, a historian who has written about the sect in Arizona. “They didn’t realize they were making a mistake going to Texas.”
Members of the group came to a scrubby ranch in rural west Texas in 2004. They live in a secretive compound from which outsiders are excluded. The women wear long, pioneer-style dresses and appear to live off the land.
Anti-polygamist activists came to Eldorado, the small town near the ranch, and the sect immediately came into the crosshairs of local authorities.
“There was suspicion, speculation and concern and we knew they were the most obedient followers of Warren Jeffs and people were alarmed,” Hilderbran said. He sponsored a bill, which became law in 2005, raising the age at which children in the state could marry with parental consent to 16 from 14.
After the raid, Child Protective Services (CPS), the Texas department responsible for such matters, said it identified 20 minors and young adult women with children who had become pregnant between the ages of 13 and 16. The age of sexual consent in Texas is 17.
It also said it found evidence that boys may have been sexually abused.
Polygamy is illegal in the United States but men in the sect marry one woman legally and then have several “spiritual unions.” In Texas, a number of young teenage girls were “spiritually married” to older men, Texas CPS said.
Phone calls and e-mailed questions to the sect’s spokesman were not returned.
The raids in April followed a call for help from someone who said she was a 16-year-old mother and said she was suffering abuse, according to media reports.
Some reports said the call may have been a hoax from a woman in Colorado, adding to the view among people living nearby that authorities had been preparing for the raid and ultimately aimed to run the sect out of town.
“They just used it as an excuse to go in there. And they have an agenda. They will close the place down,” said Charles McDaniel, a retired firefighter in the nearby town of San Angelo.
The scale of the operation suggests that Texas was ready. Dozens of heavily armed police went into the compound with an armored personal carrier. They met almost no resistance.
“They were ready for a complaint and had contingency plans,” said John Sampson, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. But he said CPS followed standard procedure.
“If they make a determination that there is an abused child in the household then they have a policy of taking all the children on the basis that if one child is at risk then they are all at risk,” he said.
Some legal experts say the Texans had little choice but to go about things the way they did.
“If your mission is to protect vulnerable children and you get that kind of phone call what else do you do?,” said Huyen Pham, an associate professor of law at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in Fort Worth.
“Perhaps they should have done more investigation but how else do you do this with a group of people who have purposely isolated themselves from society?” she said.
Endless legal battles loom. Criminal charges have not yet been laid in the case. Some of the girls may have become pregnant outside before they moved to Texas, which would make prosecution here difficult.
Anti-polygamist activists have lauded Texas.
“They have done what we have been trying to get Utah and Arizona do for a 100 years and that is protect children,” said Flora Jessop, who was raised in an FLDS community from which she fled when she was a teenager. “I say God bless Texas.”
Reporting by Ed Stoddard; Additional reporting by Jessica Rindaldi; Editing by Eddie Evans