ELDORADO, Texas – Mothers separated from their children as part of a wide-ranging abuse investigation within a polygamist retreat accuse state officials of misleading them before taking their offspring into custody.
Authorities raided the sect's ranch more than a week ago in response to allegations that underage girls were forced to marry older men. Women and children from the secretive community were taken to a West Texas fort-turned-museum and a rodeo pavilion, but on Monday officials began separating women and some of their offspring without warning, members of the sect said.
While some women and children were taken from the shelters to the nearby San Angelo Coliseum, other women were allowed to return to the ranch — but only those who were childless or had children under the age of 5.
About three dozen of the women who returned to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints ranch spoke out Monday, after 11 days in temporary shelters. They said in interviews that police surrounded them Monday and gave them a choice between returning home, or relocating to a women's shelter.
"It just feels like someone is trying to hurt us," said Paula, 38, who like other members of the sect declined to give her full name. "I do not understand how they can do this when they don't have a for sure knowledge that anyone has abused these children."
Marissa Gonzales, a spokeswoman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, said the move was a typical procedure taken by the agency.
"It is not the normal practice to allow parents to accompany the child when an abuse allegation is made," Gonzales said.
Brenda, a 37-year-old mother of two teenage boys, said the women were threatened with arrest if they resisted the court order. Previously, the women had been told they would stay with the children at least until Thursday, when a custody hearing is scheduled, she said.
A call to CPS for comment late Monday on the women's claims was not immediately returned.
CPS's closing of the shelters came a day after three mothers from the ranch petitioned Gov. Rick Perry to inspect the shelters to see firsthand how families were being treated. The women said the living conditions were cramped and that some of the children had become sick.
About 20 children were recovering from a mild case of chickenpox, said Dr. Sandra Guerra-Cantu with the state Health Department.
Perry spokesman Robert Black said the governor did not believe the children were being housed in poor conditions at the West Texas fort.
"Let's be honest here, this is not the Ritz," Black said. But he called the accommodations "clean and neat."
CPS said officials have been planning the move for a week but that the coliseum was unavailable earlier. About two dozen teenage boys were moved to a facility outside San Angelo with the judge's permission, CPS said. The location was not released.
The state is accusing the sect of physically and sexually abusing the youngsters and wants to strip their parents of custody and place the children in foster care or put them up for adoption. The sheer size of the case was an obstacle.
"Quite frankly, I'm not sure what we're going to do," Texas District Judge Barbara Walther said after a conference that included three to four dozen attorneys either representing or hoping to represent youngsters.
Brenda and others were critical of CPS, saying the agency misled them as to what was to happen Monday, weren't told why the children were removed from the compound and given inaccurate messages about opportunities to meet attorneys.
"We got to where we said, 'We cannot believe a word you say. We cannot trust you,"' she said.
Officials said the investigation began with a call from a young girl who has yet to be located by CPS. The women in the sect said they suspect she may be a bitter ex-member of the church.
The FLDS practice polygamy in arranged marriages, sometimes between underage girls and older men. The group has thousands of followers in two side-by-side towns in Arizona and Utah.
The church has repeatedly fought because of its lifestyle before. Men, women and children have been swept up in raids that took place in 1935, 1944 and 1953.
"It's been all through history, " said Brenda, the mother of two. "We were just here trying to live a peaceful, happy, sweet life. We don't understand why we can't do this freely."