Polygamy Sect Kids Must Stay in Custody

The representatives for the sect's girls ages 5 to 11 requested the children be returned to their parents, while state Children's Protective Services comes up with a long-term plan.

But Perry warned that the possible problem with that kind of arrangement is the children's continued exposure to the destructive belief system that promotes sex could be harmful.

When asked, Perry said that the youngest children are probably least at risk if returned to parents in the short term because they are least influenced by unhealthy beliefs. He also said that he thought it would be OK for young mothers to continue to stay with their babies until a more long-term decision is made.

Earlier today, testimony in the giant custody case revealed that more than 20 girls taken from a polygamist Texas ranch became pregnant or gave birth before they were 16 or 17.

The testimony came from Angie Voss, a supervisor of investigations at the Texas Department of Child Protective Services. Voss was part of the weeklong raid by Texas authorities of the polygamist compound.

Relying on the interviews and records taken from the sect's compound, Voss told the court that more than 20 of the girls either conceived or gave birth before they were 16 or 17.

"There is a culture of young girls being pregnant by older men," Voss testified under cross examination.

While on the stand Thursday, Voss said that girls from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had told child welfare interviewers that there is "no age too young to be married and they wanted to have as many babies as they could."

The state's testimony before Judge Walther was meant to bolster the argument that returning the children to their parents would put the children in danger of physical and sexual abuse.

The help make that point, psychiatrist Perry described the sect as a very authoritarian community.

"Obedience is a very important element of their belief system" and disobeying the sect's prophet is thought to lead to eternal damnation, he said.

Perry said he interviewed three underage girls from the sect, and they told him they had a choice in whether they got married.

He said, however, "It doesn't feel to me like it's a true choice."

Children raised in such an authoritarian atmosphere, Perry said, have the "independent thinking capability of a much younger child."

He said a 15-year-old from the sect would have the critical thinking of a 6-year-old.

"So much of what they do out there is wonderful. But there is a part of what they do that is very destructive," Perry testified. He said he wished the sect's leaders wouldn't teach their children to be so fearful of the outside world.

For the second day in a row, more than 350 lawyers filled the courtroom in the Tom Green County Courthouse as well as an overflow room in a nearby building, where lawyers and the press watched the proceedings on a video screen.

Progress in the case was slow and frustrating, and Walther struggled to keep things focused in what is believed to be the largest child custody case in the country's history.

The judge repeatedly cut off lawyers' questions with a curt, "Get to the point." She demanded of one attorney, "How is this relevant to my decision whether or not to return the children?"

Watching quietly among the lawyers were more than a dozen of the sect's mothers, dressed in their trademark pastel pioneer-style dresses.

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