A judge on Monday ruled that more than 400 children, taken into state custody from a polygamous community in West Texas, must be given access to phones to contact their attorneys, but refused to rule on a motion to allow breastfeeding mothers to remain with their children.
Judge Barbara Walther called a motion for a temporary restraining order to prevent the mothers from being separated from their children "premature." Lawyers for several mothers had sought the order to keep the mothers and infant children together while the state goes through the difficult process of finding the biological parents of each child.
The mothers' motion also asked the court for privacy while the children prayed, claiming that staff interrupted their prayers with vacuum cleaning and other distractions. And they objected to having state employees monitor the prayers.
Walther ruled that they could pray twice a day and said she would try to find Mormon monitors to ensure that the mothers aren't coaching their kids or discussing the ongoing litigation. "How would I stop someone from practicing their faith?" Walther said.
The court motion came on a day when officials were to begin taking DNA samples from the children. The DNA tests are meant to help determine who the parents of the children are and whether any of the children are victims of sexual abuse. The results are expected back in about a week to 10 days.
Walther ordered the tests for the children and their parents on Friday after state child protection officials, and some lawyers, complained that the children often gave multiple names and may have lied about their ages.
Walther also ruled Friday, after two days of testimony in one of the largest child welfare cases in U.S. history, that the 437 Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints children must remain in temporary state custody until they have individual status hearings.
The state Child Protective Services said it had determined that it has 437 children from the fundamentalist sect in custody — not 416, as the state has been saying, since it first took the children into custody more than two weeks ago. The agency said the discrepancy was because 21 women were reclassified as minors.
"The initial count was taken when we had five shelters operating and no way to get an accurate count," said CPS spokesman Daniel Azar. "We have devised ways of differentiating each child and now have a much more accurate count in what is a much more orderly setting."
The children are scheduled to be placed in temporary foster homes after the genetic testing is completed. Many of the mothers have been staying with the children in the San Angelo Coliseum, but after the DNA testing is done, only underage mothers will be allowed to remain with their children, the state has said.
Child welfare officials have said that the children would be at risk of physical or sexual abuse if they are returned to their parents at the Yearning for Zion Ranch. Walther also ordered parents to undergo maternity and paternity testing this week.
If the parents named in the court's order refuse to get the tests, they could be held in contempt of court. They would also lose a chance to prove that a child is theirs, and the child would probably have to remain in state custody.