A judge today ruled in the Texas polygamy case that all 416 children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch must remain in temporary state custody, even as Texas Rangers investigate a possible hoax behind phone calls made last month that prompted a police raid of the sect's compound two weeks ago.
"This is the hardest, toughest decision a judge makes any day," state District Judge Barbara Walther said of her ruling to keep the children from the parents who have, in some cases, allegedly abused them.
The judge also ordered the fathers and mothers to undergo DNA testing to establish parental relations. The tests will be performed Monday at a mobile testing lab outside the San Angelo Coliseum, where most of the children are being held (27 teenage boys were sent to a camp for juvenile boys and girls 400 miles away).
Separately, police have identified a Colorado woman as a "person of interest" in regard to telephone calls placed to a crisis center hotline in San Angelo.
As ABCNEWS.com reported Thursday, Texas Rangers met in Colorado Springs, Colo., Wednesday with local police to discuss a possible connection between Rozita Swinton, 33, of Colorado Springs, and telephone calls made regarding activities at the polygamist compound in Eldorado, Texas, that prompted the police raid and removal of the children April 3.
"Texas Rangers accompanied the Colorado Springs officers while they executed an evidentiary search warrant at Swinton's residence for items related to previous false reports to authorities in Colorado," Texas Rangers said in a statement. "During the search, officers found several items that indicated a possible connection between Swinton and calls regarding the [Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints] compounds in Colorado City, Ariz., and Eldorado, Texas."
Texas Rangers said their investigation into the alleged underage marriages of adolescent females with older males within the sect is ongoing.
At the end of the final day of a two-day custody hearing, Judge Walther said each child is entitled to another hearing on or before June 5, although the judge is not required to rule by then.
The state has a year to make its case to take custody of the children, with a possible six-month extension, Texas lawyers said. If officials fail to make their case in that time, the children will be returned to their parents.
The judge's ruling followed a day of testimony from other experts.
Bruce Perry, a child psychologist, testified that the traditional foster care system could be destructive to children taken from the sect's ranch. But he also testified that the children could be at risk if they are returned to the ranch.
Perry said the raid of the compound is a "very unique situation" and that the foster care system would be "destructive" to the children. He emphasized the need for an "innovative" solution in which families and children could get to know one another, which he said would be more beneficial for the children.
While Perry suggested that foster care with individuals who are trained to deal with children who have suffered trauma would be ideal, he doubted such an option existed.
"That just does not exist in the foster care system that I'm aware of," he said.
Lawyers representing sect members, who were split into groups according to the age and sex of their clientele for cross examination, countered Perry's recommendations with their own.
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.
As the hearings grinded on, investigators tried to locate the person who triggered the raid with a phone call to a domestic abuse hotline. The caller said she was a 16-year-old named Sarah who had an 8-month-old baby and that she believed she was pregnant a second time. She complained that her 49-year-old husband beat her and forced her to have sex.
The sect's women claimed that "Sarah" doesn't exist, but Voss said that when she first went to the ranch and spoke to some of the sect's girls, several said they knew who Sarah was but didn't know where she was.
Voss said the atmosphere when she visited the ranch was "a scary environment, intimidating."