Texas law enforcement authorities removed 416 children from a fundamentalist Mormon compound after a 16-year-old girl complained of sexual and physical abuse. The girl claimed she was forced against her will to marry a 49-year-old man and engage in sexual relations. The man, the teenage girl and the children are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The FLDS is one of the most well-known polygamous offshoots of the Mormon movement. Its leader, Warren Jeffs, has frequently been in the news over the past couple years, first when the FBI added him to its Ten Most Wanted list and secondly when a Utah state court convicted him of twice being an accomplice to rape.

The sect extends into Canada, where it runs a commune in Bountiful, B.C. Yet, the B.C. government fears following in the footsteps of its Texas counterpart. With the passage of Canada’s same-sex “marriage” legislation, B.C. officials are concerned any action against the commune would lead to the courts declaring anti-polygamy laws unconstitutional.

Yet, as Texas courts decide whether to return the children or place them in foster care, several former FLDS members have stepped forward and said the sect’s polygamous practices are harmful to women and children.

Rena and Kathleen Mackert are sisters who were born into the FLDS. The women spoke to The Interim through Tapestry Against Polygamy (Polygamy.org), a Utah-based organization that helps adults and children leaving polygamous relationships.

Tapestry spokeswoman Roweena Erickson, a refugee from another polygamous sect, said the sisters’ experience is common to that of women and children raised in polygamous organizations.

“I was severely beaten as a child,” Rena said, “and my father sexually abused me from the time I was three-and-a-half years old.” Kathleen recalls trying to commit suicide when she was six. “To me, as a six-year-old, I would rather end that life I was trapped in,” she said. “I felt I was being raised as a slave in modern-day America.”

The FLDS forced Kathleen to marry her step-brother when she was a teenager. The marriage only added to her emotional turmoil. “One day, he’s your brother and the next day, he’s your husband,” she said. Additionally, she would break down emotionally whenever a man admired her beauty, because the compliment triggered memories of her father’s words whenever he sexually molested her.

Rena was also forced to marry a step-brother as a teenager. The marriage was loveless, she said. Shortly before the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, Rena’s husband abandoned polygamy, Rena and the couple’s three children.

The FLDS then ordered Rena to marry another sister’s husband. She refused. She was in her early 20s, while the man was close to 60. While being taken to task by the FLDS leader for her disobedience, she denounced her father for having sexually molested her as a child. The leader excommunicated her.

“They took my children away, placed them with my father and mother and told (the children) I had abandoned them,” Rena said. The FLDS forbade any contact between Rena and her children. They would be whisked away whenever Rena tried to visit. Yet Rena’s biggest concern was that her children were now under the care of her father, who had physically and sexually abused her as a child.

Rena’s children were returned a year later after a chance encounter with an attorney at the restaurant where she worked. Yet, Rena’s plight is common to most vulnerable adults and children who are born into polygamous sects and then try to leave.

They have nobody to turn to, as they are not permitted to socialize outside of their sect. Additionally, poor education and few job skills limit employment opportunities in the real world. And because these polygamous groups operate secretively and little is known about the particulars of their inner workings, finding a qualified therapist is difficult.

The children seized in Texas will need a lot of support, Rena said. “Most believe they’re condemned to hell. Many will end up alcoholics, drug addicts, strippers, prostitutes, criminals and prisoners.” Polygamy has this effect on teenagers, because girls are seen mainly as sex objects, while boys are seen by older men as competition for the girls.

Often referred to as the “lost boys of polygamy,” many polygamous sects excommunicate large numbers of their teenage boys for the most trivial infractions. Once excommunicated, the boys are left on the street without any financial or emotional support. The girls are then given as wives to men as old as 70 years of age.

“Many of the lost boys have been sexually molested and don’t know how to relate to other people,” Rena said. ”Many commit suicide.” This raises another difficulty faced by Rena, Kathleen and others who have escaped polygamy: the lack of a father figure while growing up makes it difficult to identify with a father.

Both Rena and Kathleen hope that in the debate over polygamy and its effects upon women and children, the state of Texas will not allow themselves to be drawn into a debate over religion.

“This has nothing to do with faith,” Kathleen said. “This is about children being abused.”