Polygamist sect kids head to foster care

April 22, 2008 9:16:04 PM PDT
Kept together at large west Texas sites for two weeks, the first of more than 400 children taken from a polygamist compound boarded buses Tuesday bound for group homes and other faraway foster care facilities. The children eagerly waved and smiled at television cameras as the buses rolled out. Adult members of the sect, meanwhile, filed through an unmarked building on a courthouse square in nearby Eldorado for the second day of DNA testing.

Authorities are trying to map the tangled family trees that authorities came across while investigating a teenage girl's allegation of abuse by her much older husband.

Lawyers inside San Angelo Coliseum who were meeting with their adult or child clients said state Children's Protective Services workers installed tight security, allowing no one in or out while the children, 114 of them by day's end, were loaded onto the buses.

The remaining 300 children at the coliseum were still undergoing DNA testing and could be moved on Thursday, said Guy Choate, a state bar official who has been coordinating the attorneys brought from all over the state to represent the children.

State District Judge Barbara Walther signed an order Tuesday allowing the state to begin moving the children into temporary foster care while the state completes DNA testing of the 437 children and at least 175 adults and develops individual custody and treatment plans.

On Monday, technicians tested children and parents in the coliseum. On Tuesday, the state added a testing site closer to the ranch, on the Eldorado courthouse square.

Women in prairie dresses and men with shirts buttoned to their necks trickled into a stone building flanked by deputies to offer DNA samples. Their lawyers said many were reluctant to offer samples for testing they believe is invasive and unnecessary.

Arriving in pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles a few at a time, the parents came to allow technicians in lab coats to swab inside their mouths as they fight to regain custody of their children.

By midday, only about two dozen of the 175 adults under court order had shown up. Several dozen mothers were still with the youngest children at a shelter and they could be swabbed there.

"We've told them to cooperate, but there are a lot of people who are reluctant," said Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Legal Aid attorneys who represent dozens of mothers. "There's a perception there that the state will be using it to separate them" rather than reunite them with their children.

On Tuesday, former FLDS member David Williams arrived from Nevada to give a DNA sample.

Clutching a Book of Mormon and photos of his boys, ages 5, 7 and 9, Williams looked at his feet as he said his children were "taken hostage by the state."

"I have been an honorable American and father and I have carefully sheltered my children from the sins of this generation," Williams said. He denied the children living at the ranch were abused.

Susan Hays, an attorney for a toddler in state custody, said many of the fathers are reluctant and some may have left the state, fearing that the tests are really designed to help prosecutors make criminal abuse cases.

The state won the right to put the children in foster care on suspicion that members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints pushed underage girls into marriage and sex and that all the children raised in the church are in danger of being victims or becoming predators.

The children have been removed from the Yearning For Zion Ranch, the renegade Mormon sect's compound in nearby Eldorado; they stayed at historic Fort Concho in San Angelo before being moved to the larger coliseum last week.

CPS spokesman Darrell Azar said child welfare officials want to get the children in a more homelike setting.

"They need to be out of the limelight," he said. "Children can't get into a normal routine in a shelter."

CPS said in its placement plan - attached to Walther's order - that it will try to place mothers under 18 with their children and will try to keep sibling groups together. Some of the families may have dozens of siblings.

Boys ages 8 and older will likely be placed in a setting similar to that where dozens of teen boys were taken last week, a Boys' Ranch near Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle some 250 miles from Eldorado.

The CPS document lists facilities all around Texas - as far as Houston, about 500 miles away - where the children may be placed.

Walther ordered all 437 children taken from the compound two weeks ago be given DNA tests after child welfare officials complained they couldn't identify the children and parents, who lived in enormous log-cabin style homes with their "sister wives" and other children and relatives. The judge ordered any known or suspected parents to also get tested in one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history.

Results will likely take a month or more.

All the children are supposed to get individual hearings before June 5 to help determine whether they'll stay in state custody or that parents may be able to take steps to regain custody of their children.

On Tuesday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the mainstream Mormon church, issued a statement in response to earlier plans to ask Mormon officials to monitor FLDS prayers inside the coliseum.

"It would be erroneous to base any request for assistance from members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the basis that our beliefs and practices are close to those of this polygamous group because they are not," spokeswoman Kim Farah said.

The main Mormon church does not recognize FLDS and disavows polygamy.

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Associated Press writers April Castro in Austin and Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.


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