On March 29, 2008, a shelter near Eldorado, Texas, received a phone call claiming that the 16-year-old caller was being abused by her husband, a 50-year-old man. The call sparked authorities to raid the Yearning for Zion Ranch, a polygamist community in Eldorado
. More than 400 children were removed from their homes and put into state custody as investigations continued.
Shortly after the raid, Lisa Ling traveled to Central Texas—and after days of waiting and hours of tense phone discussions, she was allowed access to the ranch
Two months after the children were removed, the Texas Supreme Court, citing lack of evidence, ordered all but one of the 439 children returned to their families. Child Protective Services confirmed that there are 12 girls under the age of 16 who were victims of sexual abuse and neglect, and seven of those girls have had one or more children. Some of the girls have chosen to come back to the ranch, while others have not. Their alleged abusers are not allowed to have any contact with them.
After her first eye-opening experience at the polygamist ranch in Eldorado, Lisa is going back to see how life has changed since the children returned home.
Unlike her first experience at the ranch, Lisa says there were far less restrictions on this visit. With the exception of the ranch's sacred temple, Lisa was allowed access to any area of the ranch she wanted to see. "The ranch is noticeably different this time. It is alive with the sound of children," Lisa says.
For the first time ever, cameras were allowed inside the ranch's school and Lisa was able to speak with a group of fifth-grade girls.
Lisa: Do you think that girls should be able to get married whenever they want at whatever age they want?
Girl 1: No, not really.
Lisa: When do you think they should be able to get married?
Girl 2: Whatever age my parents want me to be.
Lisa: What if they said you could get married at 14?
Girl 2: Then I'd say okay.
Girl 3: You can marry who the heavenly Father wants you to.
Lisa: What's the best part about being back?
Girl 2: I can work without people trying to make us quit working, because our religion teaches us to work and we love to work.
A group of high school girls also agree to talk to Lisa and discuss what it was like to be questioned by authorities after the raid. "They asked us if our parents gave us the right to choose who we wanted to marry," one girl says. "A lot of questions relating to marriage."
Another girl tells Lisa that she has the option to say no if her parents choose someone she doesn't want to marry. "They wouldn't go and have you marry them if you said no," she says.
Lisa says she also asked the girls how they felt about the outside world they lived in for two months while the investigations went on.
"Keep in mind, they were in shelters and foster care facilities, so most of the other children they were interacting with didn't have parents," Lisa says. "So in their mind, they said, 'Well, we felt sorry for those kids on the outside because they didn't have parents.' So their perception of the outside world while they were out for those two months was pretty skewed."
In addition to interviewing the women and children on the ranch, Lisa was also allowed to talk to the men—including Seth Jeffs, the brother of Warren Jeffs
, the imprisoned prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. FLDS is one of the largest polygamist sects in the United States.
Seth takes Lisa into his home, where he lives with 19 children and seven wives. When Lisa asks Seth if he is hoping to have more children, he says, "Every child is a precious gift sent from our heavenly Father, and that's what plural marriage is all about."
Lisa asks Seth about the white limestone temple, the controversial centerpiece of the ranch and the only place Lisa and cameras were not allowed to access.
"This is a sacred place to us, and [the authorities] forced entry," Seth says. "And to us it's so sacred that once someone comes in that is not allowed to go there, it's been desecrated. So we can't use it."
Seth also introduces Lisa to Bob and Edson, two other men who live on the ranch. She asks the men to set the record straight—at what age should a girl be able to get married or enter a spiritual union? "By her choice, when she wants to," Seth says.
Seth says there is a misconception that the girls on the ranch are being forced to marry
. "That's the big lie because she's not," he says. "A girl doesn't get married if she doesn't want to. A boy doesn't get married if he doesn't want to."
The current law in Texas states the legal marrying age as 16, and Seth says FLDS monitors underage marriage. "The church has announced that they won't perform marriages for anything under 18 now," he says. "So to me it's a dead issue. Who really cares?"
Does Lisa believe the men who say underage marriage is no longer an issue? "Well, I think that they have to be very cautious," she says. "They have [Child Protection Services] coming and monitoring things all the time." Lisa points out, however, that some of families have not returned to the ranch since the raid. "They say that they're constantly under this kind of scrutiny and they would rather not have to deal with it on the ranch," Lisa says.
Although fingers are often pointed at polygamist men
, Lisa says Seth brought up an opposing viewpoint. "Seth Jeffs also made it a point to say that on the outside world, a man can have as many mistresses and father as many children as he wants," she says. "But when they want to sanctify it and call it marriage, that's when they are in violation of the law."
Willie Jessop is one of the leaders of the Yearning for Zion Ranch and the man who gave Lisa the final approval to go inside the ranch.
Willie is Skyping in from Las Vegas, where he's on a business trip. He says the community is still trying to come to grips with the aftermath of the raid. "It's one of those things where you feel the effect of this for many, many years," he says. "And these children will never forget what happened to them. They'll never understand it. We'll never understand it. This is one of the greatest crimes against humanity you can imagine."
Although 12 men from the ranch still face criminal charges, including sexual assault and bigamy, Willie says to keep in mind that no one has been convicted. "These men have not had their day in court," he says. "And if you look at the track record of this thing, it's gone from 30, 40 underage girls that were supposedly pregnant and all the kinds of allegations made. But the important thing is this: There isn't one of [the men] that's been convicted or found guilty of a crime. And the fact that everyone can make allegations, those were allegations when they came into the ranch. But at the end of the day, that's what they are, and they're still only that—they're allegations."
Willie has made a public statement saying that FLDS doesn't condone underage marriage, and says he stands by it. When asked if a 12- or 14- or 15-year-old girl should be allowed to marry, Willie says no. "I don't think any of them in that age group should be involved in a marriage, and I think that we've been very straight about that. I think the evidence has proved that actions speak louder than words and we haven't been involved in that, and I think that that's the part of this story that they haven't disclosed, is we haven't been involved in these and we won't in the future."
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