Texas officials who took 416 children from a polygamist retreat into state custody sent many of their mothers away Monday, as a judge and lawyers struggled with a legal and logistical morass in one of the biggest child-custody cases in U.S. history.
Of the 139 women who voluntarily left the compound with their children since an April 3 raid, only those with children 4 or younger were allowed to continue staying with them, said Marissa Gonzales, spokewoman for the state Children’s Protective Services agency. She did not know how many women stayed.
“It is not the normal practice to allow parents to accompany the child when an abuse allegation is made,” Gonzales said.
The women were given a choice: Return to the Eldorado ranch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a renegade Mormon sect, or go to another safe location. Some women chose the latter, Gonzales said.
The state is accusing the sect of physically and sexually abusing the youngsters and wants to strip their parents of custody and place the children in foster care or put them up for adoption. The sheer size of the case was an obstacle.
“Quite frankly, I’m not sure what we’re going to do,” Texas District Judge Barbara Walther said after a conference that included three to four dozen attorneys either representing or hoping to represent youngsters.
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The mothers were taken away Monday after they and the children were taken by bus under heavy security out of historic Fort Concho, where they had been staying, to the San Angelo Coliseum, which holds nearly 5,000 people and is used for hockey games, rodeos and concerts. The polygamist retreat is about 45 miles south of San Angelo.
Authorities ordered the children to be moved after some of the youngsters’ mothers complained to Gov. Rick Perry that the children were getting sick in the crowded fort.
About 20 children had a mild case of chicken pox, said Dr. Sandra Guerra-Cantu with the state Health Department.
Perry spokesman Robert Black said the governor did not believe the children were being housed in poor conditions at the West Texas fort. “Let’s be honest here, this is not the Ritz,” Black said, but he called the accommodations “clean and neat.”
Monday’s courtroom conference was held to work out the ground rules for a court hearing beginning Thursday on the fate of the children.
The judge made no immediate decisions on how the hearing will be carried out. Among the questions left unanswered: Would a courtroom big enough to hold everyone be available at the Tom Green County Courthouse, or would some kind of video link be employed?
Texas bar officials said more than 350 lawyers from across the state have volunteered to represent the children free of charge. Moreover, the 139 mothers who voluntarily left the sect to be with their children may hire lawyers, too, to help them fight for custody.
The sheer numbers left the judge perplexed as she considered suggestions from the lawyers for how to handle Thursday’s hearing.
“It would seem inefficient to have a witness testify 416 times,” the judge offered. “If I gave everybody five minutes, that would be 70 hours.”
In an unintended illustration of the problem, Walther gave the lawyers 30 minutes to break into groups and report back to her with ideas. It took almost two hours for everyone to reassemble.
The raid followed a call to a domestic violence hot line from a 16-year-old girl who said she was beaten and raped by her 50-year-old husband.
In addition to becoming a monumental legal morass, the case is proving to be a public-relations headache for the state.
Over the weekend, some of the mothers went on the offensive, complaining the children are falling ill and are frightened and traumatized from living in cramped conditions at the fort, with cots, cribs and playpens lined up side by side.
The secretive nature of the sect _ and the indoctrination children receive from birth to mistrust outsiders _ have added to the confusion. Randoll Stout, one of the lawyers who plan to represent some of the children, said the youngsters “seem to change their names. Adults change their names. Children are passed around.”
Lawyers said the state told the mothers that if they leave the shelters where their children are being held, they will not be let back in. Griselda Paz of Legal Aid of Northwest Texas said she had never seen such restrictions in 20 years of legal work.
“By isolating them, by not letting them talk to their lawyers or giving them the choice between leaving their children and being able to talk to lawyers and prepare for this hearing, they feel that that’s unfair,” said Parker, the FLDS lawyer, who has represented the church and some of its members in civil and criminal cases. “And of course they are out of their element, they’re frightened of all those things.”
Betty Balli Torres, executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, said it is vital that the mothers be represented by lawyers. Otherwise, they could lose their children _ “what we call kind of the death penalty of family law cases.”
She said 10 women went into the San Angelo legal aid office last week seeking help and reported there were 100 more women who needed lawyers. Attorneys began meeting with the women over the weekend.
A church lawyer, Rod Parker, said the 60 or so men remaining on the 1,700-acre ranch have offered to leave the compound if the state would allow the women and children to return to the place with child welfare monitors. But the state Children’s Protective Services agency said it had not yet seen the offer and had no comment on it.
The sect practices polygamy in arranged marriages between underage girls and older men. The group has thousands of followers in two side-by-side towns in Arizona and Utah. The sect’s prophet and spiritual leader, Warren Jeffs, is in prison for forcing an underage age into a marriage in Utah.
Associated Press reporter Kelley Shannon contributed to this story from Austin.