By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Child neglect and abuse were widespread at a Texas polygamist ranch with at least a dozen girls forced into underage marriages, according to a report released by state authorities.
The report, released late on Monday, said most of the cases had been closed because of subsequent steps taken by parents since massive raids were launched in April against the polygamist compound in a remote corner of west Texas.
The report by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is the latest chapter in a saga that gripped the state with lurid tales of adolescent brides married to older men under the cloak of a secretive sect practicing its religion on an isolated ranch.
Texas authorities raided the Yearning For Zion Ranch outside the small west Texas community of Eldorado in April, removing over 400 children in response to an abuse complaint.
The compound was run by a renegade Mormon sect called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which still practices polygamy. The sect practices an austere lifestyle and the women dress in conservative pioneer clothes.
Multiple marriages were once common among U.S. Mormons but the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renounced the practice over a century ago and is at pains to distance itself from the FLDS and other polygamist groups.
"Twelve girls are confirmed victims of sexual abuse and neglect because they were married at ages ranging from 12 to 15," the Texas report said.
It went on to say that 262 other children "were subjected to neglect because parents failed to remove their child from a situation in which the child would be exposed to sexual abuse committed against another child."
Texas authorities have been criticized for their handling of the case and the massive show of force used in initial raids on the compound.
In May, a court ruled that Texas overstepped its authority when it removed the children, a ruling upheld by the state's Supreme Court. That led to the return of the children to their parents, but investigations were allowed to continue.
The Department of Family and Protective Services report said that of the 439 children involved, the state had ended cases involving 424 children "because the family has taken appropriate steps to protect the child from sexual abuse or there was no abuse or neglect in the family."
"There are pending lawsuits in the cases of five mothers and their 15 children," it added.
The Texas Attorney General has filed charges ranging from bigamy to sexual assault against 12 men in connection with the case. One is the group's jailed spiritual leader, Warren Jeffs, who was convicted in 2007 in Utah of forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her first cousin.
(Additional reporting and writing by Ed Stoddard in Dallas, editing by Todd Eastham))
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