ELDORADO, Texas – Mothers from a polygamous sect described an emotional, rushed scene when they were forced from the shelter where they had been staying with their young children since the state removed them from their homes.
"My two oldest were just terrified and they clung to me saying, `Mother, mother, we want to go with you,"' said Ruth, her voice breaking as she began to cry. She and other members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who spoke outside the sect's ranch Thursday declined to give their last names, fearing it will affect their custody cases.
Dozens of mothers were bused away from their children at the San Angelo Coliseum on Thursday after their legal efforts to stay united were rejected. Texas officials were preparing to move the last of the more than 400 children taken from the sect's ranch to group homes, shelters and residences, some hundreds of miles away, over the next few days.
One woman held a handwritten sign out the bus window that read: "SOS. Mothers separated. Help."
"There are no words to describe how it was," said Velvet, a mother who was forced to leave her 13-month old. "We've been staying up nights to watch over the children because we didn't know what would happen."
In Salt Lake City, about 100 protesters gathered outside EnergySolutions Arena on Thursday night to support the FLDS parents who have been fighting accusations of abuse within the sect since their ranch was raided April 3.
The protesters held signs that read "Free the Children" and "Got Constitution?" and chanted "Shame on Texas; free those kids!" as fans walked by on their way to the NBA playoff game between the Houston Rockets and the Utah Jazz.
"My heart's breaking for those kids," said Kathleen Tucker, 58, who attended with her daughter and four grandchildren.
Tucker said she was not affiliated with the FLDS church but felt the families' religious freedoms were violated.
"How in the world can they do that? How can the state do that?" she asked.
Earlier in the day, Texas' 3rd Court of Appeals rejected the mothers' pleas to immediately stop authorities from busing the children taken from the ranch to foster homes.
The Austin-based court agreed to hear arguments Tuesday, but attorney Robert Doggett, who represents 48 mothers, said that "having a hearing after the fact" was pointless.
"It could very well be there's some good reasons to remove some of those children, absolutely," Doggett said. "But to suggest all of them be painted with this broad brush because they belong to a particular religion is a very dangerous thing, and that's why we have courts."
The Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, south of San Angelo, is owned by the FLDS, a renegade Mormon sect.
Texas officials allege that the sect encourages adolescent girls to marry older men and have children, and that boys are groomed to become future perpetrators. Sect members deny the allegations.
"That's all it is, an allegation," FLDS leader Willie Jessop said Thursday.
Child welfare officials removed the children on suspicion of physical and sexual abuse after a family violence center received calls from a female saying she was a 16-year-old girl inside the compound whose 49-year-old husband beat and raped her. A judge awarded the state temporary custody last week after signing an emergency order nearly three weeks ago authorizing the state to remove the children from their homes.
The case has been marked by confusion, even on the number of children involved. The state's count rose, for the second time, to 462 on Thursday because officials believe 25 more mothers from the compound who had claimed to be adults are under 18.
About 260 children remain in the coliseum. Child Protective Services officials say they'll move them as soon as possible but no timeline as been set.
Authorities are investigating whether the call that prompted the raid came from a woman in Colorado who has a history of making fake calls to authorities. The purported 16-year-old caller has not been identified, but state child welfare officials say their investigation has uncovered evidence of abuse and that they responded to the call in good faith.
"It's really what we found that mattered," Child Protective Services spokesman Darrell Azar said.
Last week, state officials separated mothers from their children unless the kids were 5 or younger, an exception that meant many of the mothers were able to stay until Thursday.
"There were tears by the children, by the women and by some of our caseworkers," Azar said of the parting.
The women were given a choice to go back to the ranch or a "safe" location. Azar said seven went back to the ranch and 40 went to the other location.
Velvet, one of the women who returned to the ranch, said the others went with Child Protective Services, fearing they'd never be allowed to see their children again if they didn't.
Where the women chose to go has no bearing on the outcome of their custody cases, Azar said. The agency has said staff is working on plans to allow visitation.
The youngsters will be held in foster group homes around the state until individual custody decisions can be made. Each mother will get individual hearings by June 5, state District Judge Barbara Walther has said.
The church's leader, Warren Jeffs, was convicted in September in southern Utah for his role in arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to an older cousin. A judge on Thursday rejected Jeffs' request for a new trial.