ELDORADO, Texas – State officials Tuesday defended their decision to suddenly separate mothers from many of the children taken in a raid on a polygamist ranch in West Texas.
Texas Children's Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said the separation was made Monday after they decided that children are more truthful in interviews about possible abuse if their parents are not around.
When state troopers and child welfare officials seized 416 children from the compound, 139 women accompanied them on their own and had been allowed to stay with the children until Monday, when they were driven back to the compound.
Only women with children under 5 could stay at the San Angelo Coliseum where they were being held.
Meisner said the decision was made after much discussion with experts.
The mothers have complained the state deceived them, but Meisner said the situation was explained and, while there were tears, the operation went smoothly.
"I can tell you we believe the children who are victims of abuse or neglect, and particularly victims at the hands of their own parents, certainly are going to feel safer to tell their story when they don't have a parent there that's coaching them with how to respond," Meisner said.
Although Meisner called the decision typical in any case her agency works "every single day," she also ticked off a list of obstacles making the seizure of more than 400 children from a polygamist sect anything but typical.
Meisner said child welfare officials still can't find birth certificates for many of the children, making parentage and age determinations impossible. She said many of the children don't know who their parents are and many have the same last name but may or may not be related.
"It's a difficult process," she said.
Authorities raided the sect's ranch more than a week ago in response to allegations that underage girls were forced to marry older men.
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."
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.
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.
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."