No Refuge

In Breaking Their Will, I write about the polygamous, religious sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or FLDS. Around 2003, the group’s leader, Warren Jeffs, moved hundreds of followers from Utah and Arizona to West Texas, hoping to set up what he called a “place of refuge.” Five years later, authorities raided the sect. Child Protective Services (CPS) removed more than 400 children based on concerns that underage girls were being “spiritually” married, often to much older men. Jeffs—who has dozens of wives, including 24 he “spiritually” married when they were minors—was later convicted by a Texas court and sentenced to life in prison for raping two girls, ages 12 and 14.

The investigation by CPS made international headlines—the child custody battle that followed was the largest in U.S. history. The media tended to focus on the controversy of removing the children, often addressing the question of whether the state had infringed on the group’s religious rights. But the media left out important information. Namely, the sect’s long history of child abuse and neglect. In addition, the press largely failed to cover conflicts within the Department of Family and Protective Services, the agency that oversees CPS. According to critics, some of whom worked for the department, the state buckled under public pressure in closing all the cases and failing to take away the custodial rights of any parents, including Jeffs and other perpetrators.

This month’s issue of the Texas Observer includes a feature story I wrote on the 2008 Texas investigation. It shows how the state had a rare opportunity to protect children in a secretive group from abuse and neglect and how critics allege that it failed to seize that opportunity. In publishing “No Refuge,” the Observer upholds its reputation as a magazine that supports investigative journalism and exposes injustice. I hope you enjoy the article.

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