HOUSTON Texas officials investigating a potential child abuse case said on Saturday 183 children and women had been removed from a ranch that is home to a breakaway Mormon sect linked to jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs.
Texas Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said the 183 consisted of 137 children and 46 women, but she could not discuss why they were taken from the ranch or whether they had left voluntarily.
Only 18 members of the group had been placed in the legal custody of the state agency, she said by telephone.
Local media reports said sect leaders had earlier refused to let authorities search the compound but local prosecutor Allison Palmer told Reuters the situation has been "defused".
"The residents have very strong feelings about their place of worship. But the authorities have managed to work through that with them in a peaceful manner it seems," Palmer told Reuters by telephone.
He said police were still conducting a search of the premises.
Investigators were looking for a young woman whose complaint sparked the raid in the first place though Palmer said there was a chance that she might be among the scores who had been removed from the compound and had not yet been identified.
Texas authorities descended on the ranch this week in response to allegations that a 50-year-old man there had married and fathered a child with an underage girl.
An official at the sheriff's department in the nearby town on Eldorado told Reuters that police were working at the compound around the clock in shifts and that everything had been "smooth."
The compound is in a semi-arid area about 120 miles (200 km) north west of San Antonio.
Buses and vans were seen on Friday driving some of the women and children from the ranch, located near the small western Texas town of Eldorado, and more were taken out overnight, Meisner said.
Local news reports said temporary shelters had been set up in churches and government buildings to house them.
The ranch is a compound for the renegade Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamist group led by Jeffs until last year.
In November, Jeffs was sentenced in a Utah court to 10 years to life in prison as an accomplice to rape for forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old first cousin.
He is in jail in Arizona awaiting trial on similar charges for arranged marriages there.
Meisner could not say what would happen next to the women and children taken from the ranch. She described the situation as "changing hour by hour."
Polygamy is outlawed everywhere in the United States but the male followers of such sects typically marry one woman officially and take the others as "spiritual wives." This makes the women single in the eyes of the state which can entitle them and their children to various welfare benefits.
The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon faith is officially known, renounced polygamy more than a century ago and tries to distance itself from breakaway factions that still practice it.
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