DENVER €” Laboratory workers began taking DNA samples on Monday from the 416 children seized in a raid earlier this month on a polygamist religious group in West Texas, as preparations were under way to send the children into indefinite protective state custody.
Potential complications loomed on both fronts in what child welfare experts said was one of the largest and most tangled custody cases in United States history.
The DNA samples, taken through cheek swabs, will be matched against samples taken from adults in the community over the next few days to determine family blood lines. The testing is part of a state inquiry into under-age marriages and abuse at the compound, run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Meanwhile, state and court officials were working out the details of how the children, who have lived in religious and cultural isolation in a small sect that is mainly distrustful of the outside world, can be housed, cared for and spared further shock or trauma while the investigation and questions of custody continue.
“We realize that there will be a transition process, culturally, based on their experience, so we’re planning on keeping them together in a large group, with siblings together as best we can and teen mothers together with their children,” said Greg Cunningham, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Mr. Cunningham said that even figuring out sibling relationships in the group was difficult, since many of the children share the same name and have been raised in a communal setting, often by several women married to the same man.
One DNA testing expert said the state’s goal of establishing lines of parentage, a key point in determining whether, as the state has argued, the sect has girls 15 or younger marry, is likely to be complicated by interrelated blood lines. Such lines are often found in an isolated group in which many of the people are related through a common forebear.
“It’s going to take longer than a typical paternity test,” said Dr. David Einum, the laboratory director at Identigene, a Salt Lake City company that does family testing.
“The sheer number of samples and relationships here along with this potential for interrelatedness will entail more testing and more advanced analysis,” said Dr. Einum, who said his laboratory was doing no work on the case.
Because of the group’s isolation, Dr. Einum said he thought it was likely that the parents of any given child were related by a common ancestor, and that any man examined as a possible father could share genetic traits with many other men in the group. The sect split off from the mainstream Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, decades ago after the Mormons disavowed polygamy in the late 19th century.
But even when family lines were established, he said, genetic testing would not illuminate anything about a central question in the state’s investigation: the age of mothers when they gave birth. That will depend on verification and records from the community.
Such records seized in the raid were spotty and ambiguous, often showing no more than a man’s name along with the names of his wives and children, state investigators said at a hearing last week in San Angelo, Tex. Under Texas law, it is illegal for a girl under 16 to marry, even with her parents’ consent.
State officials said their raid on the Yearning for Zion ranch in the small town of Eldorado, which began April 3, was prompted by a call from inside the compound by someone who identified herself as a 16-year-old girl who was pregnant and being sexually abused by her middle-aged husband. State officials have been unable to find the girl, and Texas Rangers said in a written statement on Friday that they were investigating as “a person of interest” a woman in Colorado Springs and scrutinizing “calls regarding F.L.D.S. compounds.”
A recorded message at the Texas Department of Public Safety’s public information office said on Monday there were no news updates on the case.
A spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general’s office, which is overseeing the DNA testing contract with the Laboratory Corporation of America, said the results of the tests €” at $100 each €” should be ready in about 30 days. The spokeswoman, Janece Rolfe, said she did not know how many adults would come forward Tuesday to give DNA at a county office in Eldorado, or where a DNA collection center would be set up for the day.
Ms. Rolfe said that even with the limits on what the DNA testing could reveal, “it will help us to identify family units, and that’s a wonderful starting point long-range goal of possibly reuniting these families.”
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