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Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Witch Hunt In Texas Continues

AUSTIN – The state says 41 children from a polygamist sect have suffered broken bones in the past, and it's checking the possibility that young boys were sexually molested.

The disclosures came as Texas' top protective services official briefed lawmakers Wednesday on the biggest removal of children in state history. CPS has said it removed 463 children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' ranch because the sect arranged "spiritual marriages" between underage girls and older men.

Medical exams and medical record reviews for the youngsters showed dozens with previous bone breaks or fractures, said Carey Cockerell, head of the Department of Family and Protective Services, parent agency of Child Protective Services.

"Several of these fractures have been found in very young children, and several have multiple fractures," Mr. Cockerell told a Senate panel.

He didn't elaborate. CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said the agency doesn't know at what ages the bone breaks occurred, what types of bones were broken or how many children had multiple breaks.

While physical injuries can be an indicator of abuse, checks by The Dallas Morning News suggested broken bones for 9 percent of a group of rural children is not out of line.

According to the Web site of the Seattle Children's Hospital, about half of all boys and a quarter of all girls break a bone sometime during childhood. In 2001, about 16 percent of youngsters under 20 living on farms suffered an injury – the most common being broken bones, a federal study says.

The department said on its Web site on Wednesday that it does "not have X-rays or complete medical information on many children so it is too early to draw any conclusions based on this information."

Mr. Cockerell also offered few details about the possible sexual abuse of boys taken from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado.

"We are also following up on discussions with young boys regarding outcries of sexual abuse," he testified.

CPS' Web site said the agency is checking out the possibility "based on interviews with the children and journal entries found at the ranch."

Mr. Crimmins said he doesn't know how many boys may have been molested.

Willie Jessop, a de facto spokesman for the polygamist ranch, called the testimony about broken bones outrageous. Certainly, there are children who have had broken legs and arms, he said – including one recently in a CPS shelter.

"The picture they're painting is very misleading," Mr. Jessop said. "It's ironic that CPS is jumping up and down against us when the most current broken bone was under their care."

He called the state's suggestion of sexual abuse of boys "completely unfounded."

"If there was an isolated allegation of abuse with a boy – and I'm certainly not saying there was – how would you like to have your community, your subdivision, your town painted with that broad brush?" Mr. Jessop said.

CPS officials also accused sect members of deliberately thwarting their investigation by altering identifying wristbands and providing false information while the children and scores of adult women were housed in shelters the state set up in San Angelo.

"Women switched children and even their clothes and clothes of their children," Mr. Cockerell said. "When asked, women and children would change their names and ages."

Mr. Jessop said the women weren't being deceitful. Many have legal surnames that differ from their marital surnames used at the ranch, he said. He said they wouldn't lie intentionally because that could lead to losing their children.

Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said she wasn't satisfied with Mr. Cockerell's explanation of how CPS will manage the sudden surge in cases. Ms. Nelson made him send her a written response late Wednesday.

Mr. Cockerell said CPS will need 42 additional caseworkers to handle the children, and more lawyers and "certain specialists." He didn't specify any costs. The foster system had some slack and easily absorbed the youngsters, he said.

Staff writer Emily Ramshaw contributed to this report.

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