ELDORADO, Texas – Using cotton swabs and cameras, lab technicians began taking DNA samples Monday from hundreds of children and mothers — wearing long, pioneer-style dresses — in hopes of sorting out the tangled family relationships within the West Texas polygamist sect.
A judge ordered last week that the genetic material be taken to help determine which children belong to which parents.
Authorities need to figure that out before they begin custody hearings to determine which children may have been abused and need to be permanently removed from the sect compound in Eldorado, and which ones can be safely returned to the fold.
State social workers have complained that over the past few weeks, sect members have offered different names and ages. Also, the children refer to all of their fathers' wives as their "mothers," and all men in the community as "uncles."
The testing went on behind closed doors at the crowded coliseum where the children seized in the raid earlier this month on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints compound are staying.
The collecting of DNA is likely to take 10 technicians most of the week, and it will be a month or more before the results are available, said Janiece Rolfe, a spokeswoman for the Texas attorney general's office.
Rod Parker, an FLDS attorney, acknowledged that family names within the sect can be confusing, but said: "No one is trying to deceive anyone. ... It's not sinister." Instead, he said that because many of the sect's marriages are not legal, adults and their children may legally have one name but use another within the community.
The April 3 nighttime raid on the 1,700-acre compound probably frightened the children, said Ken Driggs, who has studied the sect extensively. "If somebody had taken the time to approach them in a way that was respectful, they probably would have gotten the information they needed," Driggs said.
The children will be placed in group homes or other quarters until individual custody hearings can be completed by early June. Officials said they will try to keep siblings together when possible, though some polygamous families may have dozens of siblings.
The testing will involve 437 children and possibly hundreds of adults. State authorities revised their count of the children from 416 as they developed better lists and discovered that not all the female members who claimed to be adults were over 18.
The testing will be more far complicated than that of the typical custody or support case.
In a typical custody case, "maternity is already established," Rolfe said, but in this case, researchers will have to determine the identity of both parents.
Each person who submits to a test will be photographed, and the inside of his or her cheek will be swabbed to remove cells for analysis.
The DNA sampling is an enormous undertaking for a state that typically tests only 1,000 children a year.
Some of the adults have ordered by the state of Texas to submit to testing. Others are being asked to do so voluntarily. But how many will do that is unclear.
Parker said he is afraid authorities secretly intend to use the DNA to build criminal cases. But state Child Protective services spokesman Greg Cunningham said: "We're not involved in the criminal investigation. That's not our objective."
Authorities believe the sect forces underage girls into marriages with older men. No one has been arrested, but a warrant has been issued for member Dale Barlow, a convicted sex offender who has said he has not been to the Texas site in years.
Attorneys for the children and the adults have complained that they haven't had enough access to their clients at the coliseum. Texas District Judge Barbara Walther ordered Monday that the women and children in the be allowed to use newly installed phone lines to contact their attorneys.
The judge also asked the attorneys to look for a Mormon volunteer to help watch over twice-daily prayers after attorneys for the women who remain with young children at the coliseum complained they weren't given enough freedom to hold their usual prayer service. CPS has said it has no intention of infringing on their religious rights but wants to be sure the women aren't conspiring to tamper with witnesses in the custody case.
"The way our clients pray is sacred to them, but it becomes less sacred when they feel people from the department are monitoring them," said Andrea Sloan, a lawyer for some of the women.
Walther suggested that volunteers from the mainline Mormon church — of which FLDS is a renegade sect — might be able to provide monitoring without undermining the sacredness of the services.
The attorneys for the mothers and children agreed to look for someone at a local stake who would be willing to help.