Nearly all the 139 women from the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, who volunteered to accompany the group's children taken by authorities, left police custody late today and headed back to the polygamist sect's rural Texas compound.
Though the 416 children were taken into state custody when authorities entered the Yearning For Zion Ranch to investigate allegations of abuse there earlier this month, the women went along voluntarily to be with their children.
Authorities said all the women except those with children younger than 4 years old were told to leave and return to the ranch.
"It is not the normal practice to allow parents to accompany the child when an abuse allegation is made," Texas Children's Protective Services spokeswoman Marissa Gonzalessaid.
The women left the children today after authorities moved the youngsters to a new shelter following complaints about the conditions of their custody, according to the Texas Department of Child Protective Services, which confirmed the move.
Dozens of buses filled with the children were seen late Monday driving under police escort from Fort Concho, where they had been held since being taken from their ranch earlier this month, to the local coliseum, where some children have already been staying.
The move comes shortly after a local judge indicated she would not make a decision this week on whether to keep the children in state custody or return them to their parents in what is shaping up to be the largest child custody case in state history.
Lawyers from the state bar association are planning an "unprecedented" volunteer effort to provide lawyers for each of the children in time for a hearing on Thursday where the state will have to justify its decision to remove the children.
A spokesman for the families said they would insist each child be represented by a lawyer and that a judge consider each case individually, rather than as a group, presenting a potential logistical nightmare for State District Judge Barbara Walther. "If I gave everybody five minutes, that would be 70 hours," she said at a court hearing on Monday.
But the families argued that the time should not be a factor.
"Just because there are logistical issues doesn't mean they can violate the constitutional rights of 500 parents and children," said Rod Parker, a lawyer who identified himself as a spokesman for the FLDS families.
Parker said there was a "huge amount" of mistrust between the FLDS families and state authorities, adding that some of the mothers who followed their children to the state shelters did not go to court today for fear they would not be allowed to return to the shelters to see their children.
Walther said one of her priorities was to determine how many girls taken from the remote Yearning for Zion Ranch were underage mothers. She said lawyers would be assigned to those girls.
The judge's remarks came a day after a group of mothers from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sent a letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry asking him to see for himself what they call the "appalling and traumatizing" conditions at the shelter where the children are being held.
During today's hearing, however, the state argued that the children not be returned to the sect's ranch in Eldorado, Texas.