SAN ANGELO, Texas – The parents of the children in state custody after a raid at a polygamist sect's ranch came to a courthouse asking one question: How do we get back our children?
They left complaining that Texas child welfare officials offered no real answers Monday as five judges began sorting the massive custody case into separate family groups. The state has more than 460 children from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in foster care.
As the hearings resumed Tuesday, Child Protective Services officials acknowledged another young mother was actually 18. That acknowledgement, following earlier admissions about four other young mothers, reduces the number of underage mothers in state custody from 31 to 26. The women now acknowledged to be adults will be released from state custody, but can stay with any children under 1 year old.
Texas officials are making it impossible for parents to get back their children, complained Willie Jessop, an elder of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which runs the ranch in Eldorado.
"Every parent is accused of being bad and there's no cure," he said after the first day of hearings, which were to resume Tuesday and expected to last three weeks.
All the parents got the same template plan outlining allegations of abuse at the ranch and services required for the children and parents. Judges made few changes, though several expressed concerns about the lack of specifics. The plans do not make it clear whether the children will ever be allowed to return to the ranch.
"What the parents are trying to find out here is what they need to do to get their children back, and there's no clear answer to that," FLDS spokesman Rod Parker said.
The parents say they are being persecuted for their religion, which includes the belief that polygamy brings glorification in heaven.
In one hearing, attorneys complained that the Book of Mormon was confiscated from some of the children at a foster facility.
"If they can openly admit they can take away the Book of Mormon from us today, it'll be the Bible tomorrow," Jessop said.
State CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said officials have not been able to confirm whether the sect members' holy text was taken from them, but they have removed photos, sermons and books of FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, a convicted sex offender.
None of the judges allowed much discussion on whether the initial grounds for removing the children from the ranch were valid. Such re-examination will likely depend on an appeals court.
Texas child welfare authorities argued that all the children, from newborns to teenagers, should be removed from the ranch because the sect pushes underage girls into marriage and sex and encourages boys to become future perpetrators.
Church members insist there was no abuse. They say the one-size-fits-all action plan devised by CPS doesn't take into account specific marriage arrangements or living circumstances.
Some sect members lived in a communal setting in large log houses they built themselves. Others lived as traditional nuclear families in their own housing on the ranch.
CPS spokeswoman Shari Pulliam said the plans look similar now but will be customized as officials get more information.
"It's logical they all look the same. All the children were removed from the same address at the same time for the same reason," she said. But "it's an evolving plan."
The plans call for parenting classes and vocational testing for the parents. They also require the parents to prove they can support their children and call for safe living environments, though they offer no specifics.
CPS supervisor Karrie Emerson said the parenting classes will be tailored to explain Texas laws regarding underage sex.
CPS has said the goal is to reunify the families by April.
The custody case has been unusual from the beginning. All the children at the ranch were treated as if they belonged to a single household, so the chaotic initial hearing involved hundreds of attorneys for children and parents and broad allegations from the department about the risks of abuse.
So far, 168 mothers and 69 fathers have been identified in court documents; more than 100 other children had unknown parents as the hearings got under way. DNA samples have been taken, but the first results are at least two weeks away.
The children were removed from the ranch during an April 3 raid that began after someone called a domestic abuse hot line claiming to be a pregnant 16-year-old abused by a much older husband. The caller has never been found and authorities are investigating whether the calls were a hoax.
The FLDS is a renegade breakaway of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.
Sect leader Jeffs has been sentenced to prison in Utah for being an accomplice to rape in arranging a marriage of a 14-year-old follower to her 19-year-old cousin. He is awaiting trial in Arizona, where he is charged as an accomplice with four counts each of incest and sexual conduct.
Court documents listed 10 children of Jeffs living at the ranch. If DNA tests confirm that any of the children are his, the children will be allowed to keep a photo, unlike the other sect children, said Meisner, the CPS spokeswoman.