Polygamist sect custody case hearings begin

May 19, 2008 8:21:28 AM PDT
Hearings began Monday as part of an enormous custody case involving the parents of more than 400 children taken from a /*polygamist*/ sect's ranch, with parents laying out their individual cases and finding out what they must do to regain custody. The hearings are being held in all five courtrooms in the Tom Green County Courthouse over the next three weeks.

Texas child welfare authorities have 463 children in foster care, taken because of allegations that members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints were forcing underage girls into marriage and sex at the sect's compound in Eldorado.

Members of the renegade Mormon sect, which teaches that polygamy brings glorification in heaven, have denied any abuse and said they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

So far, 168 mothers and 69 fathers of the children have been identified in court documents, though DNA test results are two to four weeks away.

More than 100 children still have not been matched with mothers. Officials have been trying to group siblings together with their mothers as the custody case moves forward.

But the case, which began with a raid on April 3, has been marked by confusion.

Child Protective Services has complained that women and children have given different names and lied about ages. The agency has also struggled with identification of children and women because many have similar names, and some of the young women, who don't wear makeup and braid their hair, look much younger than their actual age.

As many as two dozen of the girls held in custody may be adults; authorities are still trying determine their ages.

At the hearings, CPS, the parents and the judge are expected to go over a plan for what services the children will get from the state and what parents must do to regain custody.

The children were removed from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado during a raid that began after someone called a domestic abuse hot line claiming to be a pregnant 16-year-old abused by a much older husband. The girl has never been found and authorities are investigating whether the calls were a hoax.