Jun 6, 2008

A Sect’s Families Reunite, and Start to Come Home

Gretel C. Kovach
New York Times
June 6, 2008

ELDORADO, Tex. — The cows still get milked each day by machine here at the Yearning for Zion ranch, although the raw-milk cheese is stacking up uneaten. The onions in the garden are as big as grapefruits, ready for harvest, with few people to pick them.

But a woman in a pink prairie dress, surrounded by a stack of boxes on a porch, is one of the first signs that life is slowly returning to normal.

Just a handful of families have returned to the ranch, the home of a polygamist sect that was raided in West Texas in April in an investigation of possible sexual abuse. The rest of the members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have heeded their lawyers’ warnings and moved to other cities while criminal and child-abuse investigations continue.

All of the more than 460 children seized in the raid have been returned to their parents.

“It’s getting better,” said Zavenda Young, 43, who returned to the ranch at sunrise Tuesday after driving all night to pick up her children scattered in group homes across the state. “I notice a few more people coming home. It was lonesome when they were gone.”

Ms. Young’s husband, Edson Jessop, 51, said, “It will be a long ways to get back to normal,” as he and his brother, Guy, 48, took two reporters and a photographer on a tour of the ranch on Wednesday in their dusty sport utility vehicle.

But it will happen, they said.

“It’s been really hard to understand why people say this is not a safe place to raise children,” Edson Jessop added. “To me, this is the safest place in the world to raise children. Isn’t home where children should be?”

The Jessops usually work in the furniture shop. But with so few people to work the land, Guy Jessop has started helping out in the garden.

“We’ve got 300 pounds of cabbage out of there already, and a couple hundred more coming,” he said, driving by the green stalks of a garden plot waving in the hot wind. “It’s getting really weedy on that end, we’re so short of help.”

Residents of the ranch are largely self-sufficient, but they have to stop at the nearest Wal-Mart now and then. “We don’t make watches,” Guy Jessop joked.

In the schoolhouse, all the calendars are stuck on April. The chalkboard bears a handwritten date — April 3, 2008 — when state troopers and child welfare workers came through the gates, after a caller to a domestic abuse hot line said she was a 16-year-old girl who was being abused by her 50-year-old husband.

The caller was never found, and the authorities now say that the call might have been a hoax. Two courts, including the Texas Supreme Court, have ruled that the children who were taken from the ranch by the authorities in April had to be returned to their parents because there was insufficient evidence that they were in imminent danger of abuse.

The criminal investigation, led by the state attorney general’s office, is continuing, and government officials are still expressing reservations about the court rulings.

“The governor is troubled that the children, especially those most at risk for abuse, the young girls, are being sent back to the compound in a situation riddled with uncertainty and the potential for harm, while it remains at the center of a very serious criminal investigation,” said Krista Piferrer, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry.

The sect is trying to put the pieces back together. “We’re trying to find that safe little town in Texas where we can be in peace,” said Willie Jessop, a sect spokesman.

Church members have been through this before. Most of their parents tell the tale of the 1953 Short Creek raid, when the authorities rounded up the women and children from their historic homeland on the Utah-Arizona border, only to return them after a public outcry over pictures of screaming children being ripped from their mothers’ arms.

“Our progenitors all the way down have been persecuted for their religion,” Edson Jessop said. “Now we get to have those one-on-one conversations with our fathers about what it was like.”

At the ranch, the purple petunias and white alyssum were still blooming next to the strip of green lawn and the rose bushes outside the schoolhouse. But life has been “totally disrupted,” Edson Jessop said.

Sometimes, residents of the ranch have to throw out the milk from their black and white Holsteins and the brown Swiss cows.

“You have to milk them, whether you do anything with it or not,” Guy Jessop said. “You’ve got to maintain them, so when the people come back, you’ll have something to feed them.”

Edson Jessop’s children — Zachery, 9; Ephraim, 7; Russell, 5; and Anne, 3 — have been reunited with one another and with their parents. Mr. Jessop and Ms. Young are thankful to the strangers who invited them to stay in their homes, “total strangers, very sweet people,” while they went from group home to group home across the state to visit their children.

Back at their apartment near the furniture shop, Mr. Jessop’s daughter scoots around the pavement on her purple plastic tricycle.

“Anne, come over here so we can take a picture,” Mr. Jessop calls, but she says “No!” and makes her father laugh. “She got sassy; they must have taught her that,” he jokes.

Watching her children play, Ms. Young, said, “It’s wonderful, wonderful to have them all here.”


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