SAN ANGELO, Texas – Child welfare officials have said in the opening days of individual custody hearings for members of a polygamist sect that at least eight mothers once held in state custody as minors were actually adults. One is 27.
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The disclosures, which have dribbled out in hearings held across five courtrooms, brings the number of underage mothers in state custody to 23, eroding statistics state officials have cited to bolster their claims of widespread abuse. Other reclassifications are likely to follow as judges sort out family relationships in custody hearings scheduled to last three weeks.
On Tuesday, two men excommunicated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which runs the ranch where about 460 children now in foster care once lived, offered to serve as guardians for their children if the state deems their mothers unfit.
"If we can establish I'm not guilty of those things, why can't I have my children?" asked Arthur Barlow, 59, after driving from southern Utah to seek custody of five of his children, who lived at the Yearning For Zion ranch in Eldorado.
Barlow and Frank Johnson, another father seeking custody of his children, were excommunicated from the church about four years ago.
It was not clear how many other relatives have asked to be considered as alternatives to foster care. Child Protective Services typically looks for relatives in custody cases, and preference is usually given to a noncustodial parent if he or she can demonstrate a safe home.
Barlow testified he had never been to the YFZ Ranch, where all the children were removed last month and placed in foster care facilities around the state. The agency argued underage girls were being forced into marriages and sex, and that boys were being raised to be perpetrators.
Church members and the excommunicated fathers denied FLDS parents are abusive or endanger the children.
Barlow said he entered into a spiritual marriage 15 years ago with Esther Jessop Barlow, now 35, whom he has known since she was a child. He said she is a fit mother, but that if the state rules otherwise, he wants custody of the children he hadn't seen until recently.
Barlow, who has 12 other children with another woman, said he didn't fight for custody when he was forced from the church because he didn't want the children used as "pawns."
The FLDS children were removed en masse from the ranch during an April 3 raid that began after someone called a domestic abuse hot line claiming to be a pregnant abused teenage wife. Authorities are investigating whether the calls were a hoax.
The judges have not allowed much discussion of the validity of the decision to take the children, but they have focused on state-drafted "service plans" outlining how parents can get their children back. Parents have complained the plans are too vague.
Johnson moved from Utah to Abilene, Texas, to be closer to his six children, who haven't lived with him for more than four years. He noted that accusations and required services are all directed at church members.
"How does the service plan fit my particular needs?" he asked in court.
Child Protective Services spokesman Patrick Crimmins said the agency has asked FLDS parents to name relatives who could take the children, but all will have to be vetted before they could get custody.
FLDS spokesman Rod Parker said the 168 mothers in the case want their children but would consider relatives to be acceptable alternative guardians.
"Anything is more acceptable than foster care or non-relative adoption," he said.
Parker also reiterated the church's belief that the final number of underage mothers will be closer to five or six, though he acknowledged that some of the young mothers apparently were pregnant while younger than 17 — Texas' age of consent.
"We've always known there are one or two or three examples out there," Parker said. "What I've always denied is that there are (dozens) out there."
State plans call for CPS to try to reunite parents and children by April. The costs of the raid and the cases are expected to rise to $30 million in that time, and state lawmakers in Austin on Tuesday began looking at how to fund them.
The FLDS, which teaches that polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.