ELDORADO, Texas, April 15, 2008 — More than two dozen women who belong to a reclusive polygamous sect said in a rare public appearance that they felt lied to by state officials and pleaded for their 416 children to be returned to them.
Many of them sobbing, several of the mothers told ABC News that they weren’t able to say goodbye to their children before being given the option to return to their ranch or be sent to another shelter.
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“All we want is our children back, clean and pure,” said a woman who identified herself as Sarah and said her five children were still in the state’s shelter. “The last thing we have is our children.”
The unexpected move is the latest twist in what appears to be one of the largest child custody cases in U.S. history, one that threatens to become a legal and logistical nightmare for the judges, lawyers and child custody workers involved.
After the surprise separation from their children, members of the sect invited reporters into their Yearning for Zion Ranch, which sits on 1,700 acres in the West Texas desert. More than 20 women, dressed in ankle-length dresses, assembled outside what appeared to be living quarters built from wooden logs, about a mile down a dirt road.
The state has said it suspects that the children of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are being physically and sexually abused and wants to strip parents of custody of their children.
If the state is successful, some of the children could be placed in foster care. Lawyers will begin to unravel the custody issues at a hearing later this week.
Carolyn Jessop, who escaped from the group five years ago with her eight children, was sympathetic to the mothers, but applauded the move.
“It’s a difficult thing and my heart goes out to them. I can appreciate emotionally what they are going through,” Jessop told “Good Morning America” today.
She said, however, the authorties were right to move the mothes out. “The children would be way more apt to open up when the mothers aren’t there,” Jessop said.
State officials raided the compound beginning April 3 after they said they received a phone call from a 16-year-old girl who claimed her 50-year-old husband raped and beat her. All 416 children were taken into custody and 139 women voluntarily left the compound with their children.
Authorities have not located or identified the 16-year-old caller, who identified herself as Sarah, and women at the compound said Monday that no such person exists.
“That person does not exist on this land,” a woman who identified herself as Joy said. “This is a huge mistake.”
The women who spoke Monday insisted that their children had never been abused. But, asked whether any girls in the sect had married older men when they were younger than 16, the women interviewed by ABC News declined to answer. “Nobody is forced into anything,” was all that a woman who identified herself as Mary would say.
“What’s happening now is the worst abuse that has ever happened to them,” said Esther, who said she had five children still in state custody.
The mothers and the children were moved by bus with a police escort from the shelter where they had been staying to the San Angelo Coliseum.
The Rev. Michael Pfeifer, bishop of San Angelo, who has toured the shelter, told ABC News the women and children repeatedly said they wanted to go home. Pfeifer said the conditions inside the shelter were cramped, with cots lined up close together and lots of women tending to infants.
Women at the ranch said they were told today that they were moving to a better facility. But, once they arrived at the coliseum, the women told ABC News that they were separated from their children and led into a room that was filled with police officers and child custody workers.
Only those with children younger than 5 were allowed to stay with them. The women said they were given a choice to return to their ranch or to go to a separate shelter.
“It’s so difficult to come back here without our children,” said a woman who identified herself as Mary. She said her two children, 6 and 8, were still in the shelter. “Our children are our lives.”
Rod Parker, a church lawyer, said there was a “huge amount” of mistrust between the FLDS families and state authorities, adding that some of the mothers who followed their children to the state shelters did not go to court today for fear that they would not be allowed to return to the shelters to see their children.
Several of the children have given investigators differing stories about who their parents are, attorneys told Walther.
Fearing that members of the sect remaining on the ranch would try to influence their testimony, on Sunday, the judge ordered mobile phones confiscated from the 100-plus mothers who accompanied children to the shelter.
Walther said that one of her priorities was to determine how many girls taken from the remote Yearning for Zion Ranch were underage mothers.
Bradshaw said the 60 or so men remaining at the ranch have offered to leave if the state will allow the women and children to return. He said he had not received a response and the state Children’s Protective Services agency said it had not yet seen the offer and had no comment on it, The Associated Press reported.
The mothers say their only priority now is to get their children back. Esther said her daughter, who turns 12 this month, was so upset when placed in the shelter that she began throwing up and stopped eating for several days.
“She was sick. She was so heartbroken,” she said. “We feel they are in danger.”