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FLDS are still feeling effects one year later

ELDORADO, Texas — Annie Jessop breaks into a smile whenever someone walks into her home. But her brothers are wary.

The 4-year-old girl reaches out to play, while her older brothers — Zachary, 10; Ephraim, 8; and 6-year-old Russell — are reluctant to talk.

A year after the raid on the Fundamentalist LDS Church's Yearning for Zion Ranch, the children still feel the effects of being taken from their homes and scattered in foster homes across Texas.

"I didn't like it," Zachary Jessop succinctly says of his time in foster care.

Their parents, Edson and Zavenda Jessop, said the children occasionally have nightmares about Child Protective Services taking them. Some have become more aggressive, verbally and physically.

"They're not over it," Zavenda sighs.

It was a year ago this week that child welfare workers and law enforcement responded to a series of phone calls claiming a 16-year-old girl was being abused on this isolated property on the Texas prairie. They never found "Sarah Jessop," but CPS says it has found other evidence of abuse prompting a judge to order the removal of all of the children.

"There's no question in my mind when they first came here, it was about our religion," said Rulon Keate, the father of six children ranging in age from 18 months to 9 years old. "I've never seen anything like what they accused us of here."

Hundreds of children were removed in what quickly mushroomed into the largest child custody case in U.S. history. CPS alleged a pattern of abuse among the Utah-based polygamous sect, with girls groomed to become child brides and boys growing up to be sexual abusers. But the 439 children were ordered returned two months later when a pair of Texas courts ruled the state acted improperly and that the children were not at immediate risk of abuse.

Homecoming

A year later, residents of the YFZ Ranch estimate more than half of the families who scattered themselves across the state to be closer to their children and stay in CPS' good graces have now moved back.

"Some still have rental contracts. Others have chosen not to come back because of the trauma they experienced here," Keate said. "The children, when they come here, are not able to cope with it."

Around the YFZ Ranch, there are signs that things are returning to some semblance of normalcy. Women are seen working in greenhouses, young men are working in fields. Children are playing outside.

"We're not quite there, but it feels real good," Frederick Merril Jessop, the leader of the YFZ Ranch, told the Deseret News. "We're grateful."

Jessop's own 14-year-old daughter is the only child remaining in state custody. Child welfare authorities allege she was married at age 12 to FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.

Jessop, 72, is facing criminal charges accusing him of performing an illegal marriage ceremony.

A dozen men, including Jeffs, were indicted by a grand jury here on charges ranging from sexual assault and bigamy to failure to report child abuse. The criminal charges almost mirror a CPS investigative report that found 12 victims of sex abuse, and 52 child victims of neglect because they were exposed to a home where the alleged abuse had taken place.

"The case was never about the religious practices of the FLDS," CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said. "The Eldorado case was about sexual abuse and it was about the abuse of children who were taught that underage marriages were a way of life and parents who condoned illegal underage marriages and failed to prevent the abuse of young girls."

FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop called the charges another form of persecution.

"I think it totally goes along with the same M.O. they've had from the very beginning, which is, 'How do we justify the terrible crime against humanity that's going on, and how do we save ourselves politically and publicly?' " he said. "If their allegations would have held up, you wouldn't see the children back."

Jessop did not rule out the possibility of a lawsuit against Texas officials over the raid.

"We're not to the last chapter of this story," he said.

Faith and deliverance

If there was an underlying desire to drive the FLDS out of the Lone Star State, it is apparent it has not worked.

As he drives his farm truck around the YFZ Ranch, Edson Jessop points out the new construction: A machine shop has been erected, sewage lagoons are being finished and new fields are being carved out of the prairie landscape.

Corn sprouts are starting to spring up in gardens built on top of the rocky ground. They are planting 1,600 fruit trees and vast potato fields.

"I'm proud to be a Texan," Jessop said. "I like it here."

Still, they have to work with Texas. Some FLDS have had encounters with the Schleicher County sheriff and his deputies, but they feel betrayed. Edson Jessop said a little girl on the ranch recently broke her arm and had to go to the hospital — where they had to deal with CPS.

"The whole system, it should be you're innocent until you're proven guilty, but this whole thing is you're guilty. … It's upside down!" he said.

No matter where you are on the ranch, you can see the symbol of the FLDS Church's devotion: the temple. The stunning white edifice now sits dark, patches of the lawn are still brown.

Asked if the temple will ever be used again, Edson Jessop admits he doesn't know.

"I'm not in a position to be able to say," he said. "I would hope so, but I just don't know. The abuse is so terrible."

He notes that law enforcement breached the temple on April 6 — the same day that Joseph Smith founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The FLDS Church is a breakaway sect from the mainstream LDS Church.

Many here look back on the raid as a test of their faith.

"Like the deliverance of Moses to the Red Sea, to us it was that miraculous," Zavenda Jessop said. "Because CPS, they told us as much as 'You will never see your children again. If you go back to the ranch, you will never see your children again.' They would tell the children: 'You're never going home. You're never going to be with your mother.' We were living with this pressure and stress. For the Lord to deliver us is miraculous."

Keate views the Texas raid as another trial in a long tradition, much like the 1953 raid on polygamists in Short Creek that his grandparents endured and the attacks on his ancestors.

"I believe it has made us a stronger people," he said.

See gosanangelo.com for more stories and photos of the year anniversary of the raid of the YFZ Ranch.

E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com