SAN ANGELO, Texas – After hours of legal wrangling, a custody hearing for hundreds of children seized from a polygamist sect finally turned to whether they were abused when a child welfare worker said some women at the sect's ranch may have had children when they were minors, some as young as 13.
The testimony came late Thursday, the first day of a court hearing to determine whether the 416 children, swept up in a raid on the ranch two weeks ago, will remain in state custody. Child welfare officials claim the children were abused or in imminent danger of abuse in part because the sect, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a renegade Mormon splinter group, encourages girls younger than 18 to marry and have children.
Child welfare investigator Angie Voss testified that at least five girls who are younger than 18 are pregnant or have children. Voss said some of the women identified as adults with children may be juveniles, or may have had children when they were younger than 18.
Identifying children and parents has been difficult, Voss said. The state has asked that DNA be taken from all of the children and their alleged parents to help determine biological connections. The judge has not ruled on that request.
During the court hearing Thursday, which continues Friday, hundreds of lawyers shouted objections or queued up to cross-examine witnesses while the judge struggled to maintain order.
"I've tried to impose some structure to this free-for-all," said Texas District Judge Barbara Walther.
The case — one of the biggest, most convoluted child-custody hearings in U.S. history — presented an extraordinary spectacle: lawyers in suits and mothers in 19th-century, pioneer-style dresses, packed into a courtroom and an auditorium two blocks away that was patched into the proceedings by a grainy video feed.
The state wants to keep the children in its custody, and likely move them to foster homes while officials continue investigating abuse allegations. The state must provide evidence the children were physically or sexually abused, or are in imminent danger of abuse.
In 11 hours on Thursday, three witnesses testified, including Voss.
As lawyers shouted, dozens of mothers sat quietly in their long cotton dresses and braided upswept hair. They were sworn in as possible witnesses, but it was not clear when they might testify.
In the satellite courtroom, hundreds of people strained to see and hear a large projector set up on the auditorium's stage. But the feed was blurry and barely audible.
No decisions were made on the fate of any of the youngsters.
The children, most of whom are being kept in a domed coliseum in San Angelo, range in age from 6 months to 17 years. About 130 are under 4 years old, Voss said.
She said she was concerned about how the children and women followed the orders of the church's prophet, identified as jailed leader Warren Jeffs.
"The children reported that if the prophet heard from the Heavenly Father that they were to marry at any age, they were to do that. If the prophet said they were to lie, they were to do that," Voss said.
Jeffs is currently awaiting trial in an Arizona jail on charges related to the promotion of underage marriages. He previously was convicted of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old wed to her cousin in a Utah case.
The sect came to Texas in 2003, relocating some members from the church's traditional home along the Utah-Arizona state line in the U.S. Southwest. Voss said the ranch was considered a special place, the sect's Zion. It traces its religious roots to the early theology of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which now denounces polygamy.
Authorities raided the 1,700-acre (700-hectare) ranch in Eldorado, Texas on April 3 and began removing children while seeking evidence of underage girls being married to adults. Walther signed an emergency order giving the state custody of the children taken from the ranch.
The raid was prompted by a call from someone identifying herself as a 16-year-old girl with the sect. She claimed her husband, a 50-year-old member of the sect, beat and raped her.
The girl has yet to be identified, though Voss said a girl matching her description was seen by other girls in the ranch days before the raid began.