PolygamistRetreat 04-23

Polygamist sect kids leave shelter for foster care, for now

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Associated Press Writer


SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) — For 2 1/2 weeks, more than 400 children who lived on a polygamist compound in western Texas have been in state custody, exiled from home but relatively close to the parents who are fighting accusations of abuse within the sect.

But with a court order signed Tuesday, about a quarter of the children were moved from the San Angelo Coliseum, loaded onto buses and taken to foster care facilities around the city and elsewhere. By week’s end, all 437 children are likely to be scattered across the state in 16 facilities.

A group of 114 children boarded buses Tuesday while adult members of the sect reported to nearby Eldorado to give their DNA as part of court-ordered genetic testing meant to untangle complicated family trees. The children eagerly waved and smiled at television cameras, even as attorneys for the children complained they weren’t warned their clients would be moved so quickly.

The remaining 300 children at the coliseum were still undergoing DNA testing and were expected to be moved on Thursday, said Guy Choate, a state bar official who has been coordinating the attorneys brought from all over the state to represent the children.

State District Judge Barbara Walther signed the order Tuesday allowing the state to begin moving the children into temporary foster care while the state completes DNA testing and develops individual custody and treatment plans.

Technicians began testing children on Monday. The state added a testing site closer to the ranch, in the Eldorado courthouse square, on Tuesday.

Women in prairie dresses and men with shirts buttoned to their necks trickled into a stone building flanked by deputies to offer DNA samples. Results will likely take a month or more.

Arriving in pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles a few at a time, the parents came to allow technicians in lab coats to swab inside their mouths as they fight to regain custody of their children.


Their lawyers said many believe the testing is invasive and unnecessary.

"We’ve told them to cooperate, but there are a lot of people who are reluctant," said Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Legal Aid attorneys who represent dozens of mothers. "There’s a perception there that the state will be using it to separate them" rather than reunite them with their children.

David Williams, a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, arrived from Nevada to give a DNA sample.

Clutching photos of his boys, ages 5, 7 and 9, Williams looked at his feet as he said his children were "taken hostage by the state."

"I have been an honorable American and father and I have carefully sheltered my children from the sins of this generation," Williams said. He denied the children living at the ranch were abused.

Susan Hays, an attorney for a toddler in state custody, said many of the fathers are reluctant and some may have left the state, fearing that the tests are really designed to help prosecutors make criminal abuse cases.

The state won the right to put the children in foster care on suspicion that FLDS members pushed underage girls into marriage and sex and that all the children raised in the church are in danger of being victims or becoming predators.

The children have been removed from the Yearning For Zion Ranch, the renegade Mormon sect’s compound in Eldorado; they stayed at historic Fort Concho in San Angelo before being moved to the larger coliseum last week.


CPS spokesman Darrell Azar said child welfare officials want to move the children to a more homelike setting.

"They need to be out of the limelight," he said. "Children can’t get into a normal routine in a shelter."

CPS said in its placement plan — attached to Walther’s order — that it will try to place mothers under 18 with their children and to keep sibling groups together. Some of the families may have dozens of siblings.

Boys ages 8 and older will likely be placed in a setting similar to that where dozens of teen boys were taken last week, a Boys Ranch near Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle some 250 miles from Eldorado.

The CPS document lists facilities all around Texas — as far as Houston, about 500 miles away — where the children may be placed in what is one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history.

Walther ordered that the children taken from the compound be given DNA tests after child welfare officials complained they couldn’t identify the children and parents. The judge ordered any known or suspected parents to also get tested.

All the children are supposed to get individual hearings before June 5 to help determine whether their parents may be able to take steps to regain custody or they’ll stay in state custody.

FLDS spokesman Rod Parker said at a news conference Tuesday in Salt Lake City that Texas doesn’t know how to handle sect children, and that efforts to keep them from being moved have been ignored.


"These people are not equipped to handle these children," said Parker. "They don’t know anything about these children."


Associated Press Writer Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

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