SAN ANGELO, Texas – Texas officials who took 416 children from a polygamist retreat into state custody sent many of their mothers away Monday, as a judge and lawyers struggled with a legal and logistical morass in one of the biggest child-custody cases in U.S. history.
Of the 139 women who voluntarily left the compound with their children since an April 3 raid, only those with children 4 or younger were allowed to continue staying with them, said Marissa Gonzales, spokewoman for the state Children’s Protective Services agency. She did not know how many women stayed.
“It is not the normal practice to allow parents to accompany the child when an abuse allegation is made,” she said.
The women were given a choice: Return to the Eldorado ranch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a renegade Mormon sect, or go to another safe location. Some women chose the latter, Gonzales said.
On Monday night, about three dozen women, many of them mothers, sobbed and held onto each other outside a log cabin on the sect’s ranch, recounting the way police officers encircled them in a room and told them that they could not stay.
One woman, Marie, said the women weren’t allowed to say goodbye to their crying children.
“They said, ‘your children are ours,’ ” said the sobbing 32-year-old whose three sons are aged 9, 7 and 5 and who would not give her last name. “We could not even ask a question.”
She said the children at the ranch have not been abused, but she feels like “they are being abused from this experience.” She said the children “have been so protected and loved.”
The women believe the abuse complaint that led to the raid came from a bitter person outside their community.
The state is accusing the sect of physically and sexually abusing the youngsters and wants to strip their parents of custody and place the children in foster care or put them up for adoption. The sheer size of the case was an obstacle.
“Quite frankly, I’m not sure what we’re going to do,” Texas District Judge Barbara Walther said after a conference that included three to four dozen attorneys either representing or hoping to represent youngsters.