On a humid Wednesday in late June, as she waited to be summoned by a grand jury, 16-year-old Teresa Jeffs hitched up her navy blue prairie dress and hoisted herself into the crooked arms of a live oak tree that sits in front of the Schleicher County Courthouse in Eldorado, Tex.
For a few minutes, she was not — as has been speculated about many of the young women of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or F.L.D.S. — a possible child bride, or a sexual-abuse victim, or a member of an out-of-touch, polygamous religious sect. She was just a kid in a tree, perched serenely above the heads of all the lawyers, reporters and sheriff’s deputies — a moon-faced girl with an auburn coxcomb of hair and a mischievous grin.

We understand so little about the view from that tree, about what the world known simply as “outside” looks like to someone like Teresa Jeffs, who was among more than 400 minors forcibly removed from the Yearning for Zion Ranch, which belongs to the F.L.D.S., in early April.

Even after the calls that triggered the military-style raid on the ranch were suspected to be a hoax, Texas child-welfare officials persisted in claiming that F.L.D.S. children were endangered by what they deemed to be a pattern of sexual and physical abuse at the ranch.

Those claims have yet to be proved — the Texas Supreme Court ruled that officials had overstepped their authority, and in early June the children were ordered to be returned to their families — but child-welfare and state criminal investigations continue. Investigators have reportedly taken D.N.A. samples from some 600 F.L.D.S. members, including children, presumably in an attempt to establish a biological link between under-age mothers and older men (in Texas, the legal age for marriage is 16 with consent; 17 for unmarried sexual contact when there is an age difference of more than three years). In addition, a handful of the sect’s young women have been subpoenaed by a Texas grand jury.

Only a small number of families have returned to the ranch, according to Willie Jessop, a spokesman for the ranch, who says many of its former residents fear the possibility of more government interference and have opted to try to live quietly elsewhere, while continuing to adhere to F.L.D.S. principles.

Two weeks ago, the photographer Stephanie Sinclair was given rare and intimate access to some of the young women who have found themselves at the center of the often-bilious battle between the state of Texas and the F.L.D.S. What’s interesting is that in a case that is, at heart, about doctrinaire male authority, and supposed abuse committed by men, it’s the women of the F.L.D.S. who have largely had to assume a public mantle these past months, making court appearances, trying to defend both their faith and their lifestyle in the face of deep skepticism.

Meanwhile, the most visible interpreters of F.L.D.S. culture have been two highly critical former members of the sect, Elissa Wall and Carolyn Jessop. (It would be an understatement to say that patriarchal plural marriages spawn vast and complicated family trees: Jessop and Jeffs are common F.L.D.S. surnames.) Both women claim to have escaped abusive, arranged marriages and have since written best-selling memoirs detailing a world in which women are forced into unconditional obedience and rapid-fire childbearing as a ticket to eternal salvation.

We may never know much about the individual circumstances of the young women in these pages or, most important, whether the relationships that carried some of them into motherhood were forced upon them. The women Sinclair met offered no information about the nature of their marriages or who the fathers of their children are.

For at least some F.L.D.S. mothers, these are uneasy times. It would stand to reason that simply by giving their ages and the ages of their children to a grand jury, coupled with court-ordered paternity tests, some of these mothers may — willingly or not — contribute to the indictments of their children’s fathers. (Because plural marriages are often considered “spiritual unions” and not legally recognized, the usual spousal protections do not apply.) Should they refuse to testify, the women risk being held in contempt of court.

Sinclair found Teresa Jeffs living with her mother and other members of her extended family in a sprawling, stately ranch house in the town of New Braunfels, 30 miles northeast of San Antonio. (Teresa’s sister Lenora was visiting that day.) Teresa is a daughter of Warren S. Jeffs, the now-notorious leader of the F.L.D.S., convicted last year on felony charges as an accomplice to rape for his role in coercing the marriage of Elissa Wall, who was then 14, to her 19-year-old cousin. Jeffs is now serving a 10-year-to-life sentence while awaiting trial on other sex charges in Arizona.

Despite a grand jury’s apparent interest in Teresa Jeffs, she has insisted that she is neither married nor has children, though in June her court-appointed lawyer obtained a special order barring any contact between Teresa and a 34-year-old F.L.D.S. man, Raymond Jessop. His relationship to Teresa was not specified at the time. (Teresa has engaged in a public dispute with her attorney, claiming that her interests were not being represented.)

In a rented four-bedroom home on a cul-de-sac in a San Antonio subdivision, Sinclair also visited the household of Sally Jeffs, the mother of 15 children, including LeAnn Jeffs, 17; Pamela Jessop, 18; and Janet Jeffs, 19, who, along with their own young children, were removed from the ranch in the raid. Pamela and Janet, as well as nearly two dozen other mothers, were originally misclassified as minors by the state (under age 18). Sinclair also spent time with 19-year-old Veda Keate in a town house in Converse, Tex. Keate was still fuming about a recent visit from a nurse and two deputies from the Texas attorney general’s office, who came to collect DNA from her and her 2-year-old daughter. With the future uncertain, the women featured here may be keeping their faith and continuing to live in large family groups, but they have, for better or worse, also had to start a new relationship with the “outside” — dealing with investigators and judges, making trips to Wal-Mart for groceries and at least contemplating the sight of their neighbors over the backyard fence.

By SARA CORBETT (NYT/ July 27, 2008)