A child protection supervisor testified Thursday that girls at a West Texas polygamous ranch believed that teen marriages were OK and that girls from the compound had gotten pregnant when they were as young as 13.
The girls believed there was "no age too young to be married and they wanted to have as many babies as they could," said Angie Voss, a supervisor of investigations at the Texas Department of Child Protective Services.
Voss testified during a massive hearing in one of the largest child protection cases in U.S. history, an ad hoc, unwieldy process that will eventually determine the fate of 416 children taken from the Yearning for Zion Ranch. The hearing will resume today.
Thurdays' hearing, filled to capacity with more than 350 lawyers for the state, the children and their parents, dragged on into the night after a sputtering start.
At times, it seemed the process threatened to fall into chaos as lawyers jumped from their seats to object and Judge Barbara Walther struggled to maintain order.
"It's a real monumental task -- the judge is essentially flying by the seat of her pants," said Eric Robertson, who represents a 2-year-old currently being housed in the San Angelo Coliseum.
Voss said it would not be safe to send the children -- including the boys -- back to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints compound because the culture there encourages marrying underage girls to older men in "spiritual marriages."
"I believe the boys are groomed to be perpetrators," she said.
Children on the Yearning for Zion Ranch also told a Texas state worker that they had seen the 16-year-old girl who reportedly called a domestic abuse hot line saying that she was beaten and sexually abused by her 49-year-old husband, spurring an investigation of child abuse on the polygamous compound, officials testified Thursday.
The children confirmed that she did have a baby but said that they did not know where she was, Voss said on the stand Thursday afternoon.
"It was a very scary environment, intimidating," said Voss, who visited the ranch the night of April 3. "I was afraid."
"I saw men all around," Voss said. "It felt like the schoolhouse was surrounded."
Voss said that when she first arrived at the ranch and asked to see the girl who made the reported phone call, the men at the gates denied anyone of her description existed.
Eventually, they were allowed inside and taken to the schoolhouse, where they asked to meet with all girls who were younger than 18.
A few of the girls who spoke with CPS investigators said that they had seen the teen the CPS workers were looking for within the previous week, Voss testified. They confirmed that she did have a baby but said that they did not know where she was.
The massive custody case of 416 children taken from a polygamist sect opened Thursday to a chorus of complaints and motions that indicate it will take a long time to sort out the children's future.
Among all the men dressed in suits in the San Angelo courtroom were about a dozen mothers from the sect dressed in their distinctive pioneer style ankle length dresses and a handful of men from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
During the first 40 minutes of the hearing, Walther was confronted with the enormity of the case — the largest child custody case in the nation's history — and the difficulty in keeping order in such a complicated proceeding.