- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) — Texas officials who took 416 children from a polygamist retreat into state custody sent many of their mothers away yesterday , 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, spokeswoman 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 breakaway Mormon sect, or go to another safe location. Some women chose the latter, Miss Gonzales said.

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.

The mothers were taken away yesterday after they and the children were taken by bus under heavy security out of historic Fort Concho, where they had been staying, to the San Angelo Coliseum, which holds nearly 5,000 people. The polygamist retreat is about 45 miles south of San Angelo.

Some of the youngsters’ mothers complained to Gov. Rick Perry that the children were getting sick in the crowded fort. About 20 children had a mild case of chickenpox, said Dr. Sandra Guerra-Cantu with the state Health Department.

Perry spokesman Robert Black said the governor did not think the children were being housed in poor conditions at the West Texas fort. “Let’s be honest here, this is not the Ritz,” Mr. Black said, but he called the accommodations “clean and neat.”

CPS said the move to the coliseum had been in the works since last week, but couldn’t be done sooner because the facility had been booked for another event and had to be cleaned and set up for the children.

CPS also said about two dozen teenage boys were moved to a facility outside San Angelo with the judge’s permission. “We don’t normally say where we place teens,” Miss Gonzales said when asked where they were sent.

Yesterday’s courtroom conference was held to work out the ground rules for a court hearing beginning Thursday on the fate of the children.

The judge made no immediate decisions on how the hearing will be carried out. Among the questions left unanswered: Would a courtroom big enough to hold everyone be available at the Tom Green County Courthouse, or would some kind of video link be employed?

Texas bar officials said more than 350 lawyers from across the state have volunteered to represent the children free of charge. The 139 mothers who voluntarily left the sect to be with their children will need lawyers to help them fight for custody.

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