Court orders polygamy sect children to remain in state custody
SAN ANGELO, Texas, April 19, 2008 (AFP) - A Texas judge has ruled that all 416 children removed from a polygamist sect compound in the largest custody hearing in US history be kept in protective custody for the time being, according to media reports.
State District Judge Barbara Walther said late Friday the children taken last week from the compound run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) would be placed in foster homes pending further hearings to take place by June 5, the San Angelo Standard Times reported on its website.
|Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints file out of the Tom Green County Courthouse following the custody hearing. (AP)
Following two extensive days of testimony and evidence gathered in the raid beginning April 3 that authorities say shows girls as young as 13 were “spiritually married” to significantly older men, the judge also ordered maternity and paternity DNA testing for each child.
A mobile lab will take DNA samples of the children and mothers beginning Monday outside the San Angelo Coliseum where the children are being held, the newspaper reported.
ABC News cited Texas lawyers as saying the state has one year to present its case to take custody of the children, with an available six-month extension, and that the children would be returned to their parents if officials cannot make their case in that time.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for FLDS suggested the case amounted to religious persecution.“CPS is trying to put the church on trial,” Rod Parker, a lawyer and spokesman for the church, was quoted by The New York Times as saying. CPS stands for Child Protective Services. “In reality what it's turning into is that CPS is on trial for their high-handed and precipitous tactics in removing these children.”Witnesses testified Friday that the idyllic appearance of life on the YFZ (Yearn For Zion) Ranch masked a coercive environment where hundreds of children were at risk of sexual abuse.
Lawyers for the sect and some of the children taken from the ranch last week sought to convince the judge that child welfare officials overstepped their bounds when they took all the ranch's children into protective custody.
But Child Protective Services supervisor Angie Voss maintained that the “culture of young girls being pregnant by older men” placed all the children at risk.
The girls, she said, were in danger of sexual abuse and the boys were being “groomed” to become perpetrators.
Texas law requires a temporary order on the status of the children be issued within 14 days from the initial removal from their home, and another ruling must be issued within 60 days.
Texas officials have said that the raid was sparked by a desperate call for help by a 16-year-old girl who said she was frequently beaten by her 50-year-old husband and was pregnant again eight months after giving birth to her first child.
The girl's whereabouts remain a mystery, though officials say they found a number of other young girls at the ranch who were either pregnant or were already mothers.
They also claim to have discovered a bed inside the sect's temple that was reserved for “husbands” -- often middle-aged men -- to have sex for the first time with their underage “wives” as soon as they were married.
The FLDS split from the mainstream Mormon church when polygamy was banned.
The group holds that plural marriage is a way to get to heaven.
Mainstream Mormons now excommunicate members who engage in polygamy and reject any connection with the FLDS.
Investigators testified Thursday that they found a household inside the Texas compound with 22 wives for one man, another with a 13-year-old mother and a third where a 17-year-old girl was married to a 46-year-old man.
The ranch was purchased in 2003 and built by Warren Jeffs, the self-described prophet of the group, who was convicted last year by a Utah court on two counts of being an accomplice to rape, relating to the marriage of a schoolgirl against her will to a cousin.
He is currently serving a 10-years-to-life prison sentence and is awaiting trial on similar charges in Arizona.