SAN ANTONIO - Texas child welfare authorities are looking at the possibility that young boys were sexually abused at a polygamist sect's ranch, a newly revealed angle of a massive investigation triggered by allegations that girls were forced into underage marriages and sex.
Carey Cockerell, the head of the state's Department of Family and Protective Services, told state legislators Wednesday his agency was investigating whether young boys were abused based on "discussions with the boys."
In a written report, the agency said interviews and journal entries suggested young boys may have been sexually abused, but didn't elaborate.
Cockerell also said 41 children from the sect had evidence of broken bones, some of whom are "very young."
He offered no details in his presentation to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. He went to the lieutenant governor's office immediately after his presentation and later sent out an aide to tell reporters he would not comment further.
Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the renegade Mormon sect that runs the ranch, reacted sharply to Cockerell's comments, saying the state was deliberately misleading the public to cover up its own errors in the case. A physician at the ranch who is also a member of the church said most of the broken bones were from minor falls and that there is no pattern of abuse there.
Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Child Protective Services division, said the state was still investigating and Cockerell's comments were not meant to be an allegation of abuse.
"This is pretty early in this investigation, particularly given the number of children we've been interviewing," he said. "We are just looking into it."
The state took custody of all 463 children living at the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado after an April 3 raid that was prompted by calls to a domestic abuse hotline. One of those minors gave birth Tuesday to a boy who will remain with his mother in a group foster-care facility.
Before Wednesday's disclosure, the state had argued it should be allowed to keep the boys, not because they were abuse victims, but because they were being groomed to become adult perpetrators in the FLDS. Men in the sect take multiple wives, some of whom are allegedly minors.
The sweeping action in the custody case has raised concerns with civil liberties groups. Individual custody hearings are scheduled to be completed by June 5, but in the meantime, all the children are in foster facilities scattered around the state.
Cockerell spoke at a state Senate briefing on foster care that had been planned before the raid, but most of his testimony focused on the sect.
With regard to Cockerell's comments on broken bones, a briefing issued after his testimony said, "We do not have X-rays or complete medical information on many children so it is too early to draw any conclusions based on this information, but it is cause for concern and something we'll continue to examine."
FLDS spokesman Rod Parker called Cockerell's testimony "a deliberate effort to mislead the public" and said state officials were "trying to politically inoculate themselves from the consequences of this horrible tragedy."
"This is just an attempt to malign these people," he said.
Lloyd Barlow, the ranch's onsite physician, said he was caring for a number of FLDS children with broken or fractured bones at the time they were removed from the ranch. He said he has referred a number of families to emergency rooms in nearby San Angelo and to orthopedic specialists.
"Probably over 90 per cent of the injuries are forearm fractures from ground-level or low level falls," Barlow told The Associated Press from his office at the Eldorado ranch. "I can also tell you that we don't live in a community where there is a pattern of abuse."
Barlow said he is an FLDS member but also a licensed physician in Texas and Utah and is required by law to report suspected abuse.
"What they are saying is that in the history of the lives of 400 some-odd children, there have been injuries. They are not saying they have 41 fractures," he said.
No reports of abuse were made to authorities in Schleicher County before the abuse hotline calls in late March that led to the raid. Those calls were purportedly made by a 16-year-old girl, but authorities are investigating whether they were a hoax.
Another FLDS member, Willie Jessop, said a seven-year-old girl broke her arm while staying in protective services custody at the San Angelo Coliseum in the days after the raid.
"We don't know how it happened. She was taken to the hospital and last we knew it was still in a splint waiting to be set," he told the AP from the ranch.
Cockerell told legislators the investigation has been difficult because members of the church have refused to co-operate. Parents coached children not to answer questions and children - even breast-feeding infants - were switched around to different mothers in what Cockerell called a co-ordinated effort to deceive.
The state has said that nearly 60 per cent of the 14-to 17-year-old girls in custody from the ranch are pregnant or already have children. Many refused to take pregnancy tests, the agency said Wednesday.
Under Texas law, children under the age of 17 generally cannot consent to sex with an adult. A girl can get married with parental permission at 16, but the sect's girls are not believed to have legal marriages.
Church officials have denied any children were abused at the ranch and say the state's actions are a form of religious persecution. They also dispute the count of teen mothers, saying at least some are likely adults.
Warren Jeffs, the sect's leader who is revered as a prophet, is in prison for a Utah conviction of being an accomplice to rape in arranging a marriage of a 14-year-old follower to her 19-year-old cousin.