All 462 children taken from a polygamous ranch in West Texas have been placed into temporary foster homes, state officials said, after a dramatic plea from some of their mothers to be kept together.
"SOS Mothers separated Help," read a sign hung from a bus that took some of the mothers from the San Angelo Coliseum, where they have been staying with the children, back to the sect's ranch.
State Child Protective Services officials said Thursday that they believe another 25 mothers from the group are under 18, bringing the total number of underage mothers from the sect to approximately 30.
Those mothers had been staying with their children at the Coliseum voluntarily, but are now in state custody, bringing the total number of children in custody to 462, said department spokesman Chris Van Dusen.
The women who were removed Thursday were mothers to some of the youngest children in state custody. The court previously had removed all the mothers except those who had children under the age of 5.
After Thursday, the only mothers allowed to remain with their kids were those whose children were under one year old and nursing, or mothers who were minors themselves.
A state appeals court has agreed to hear arguments next week about whether the state can place the children into temporary foster care without giving each family an individual hearing.
"These families have the right to have their voices heard in the legal process," said Robert Doggett, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which filed the appeal. "The idea that these children can be taken away without giving their families the opportunity to address allegations and fight to stay together is absurd."
But, despite the court's decision to hold a hearing, the state appeared to be proceeding with its plan to place the children in temporary homes by the end of the week.
As the children settle into their new foster homes, their temporary caregivers are careful how they introduce them to a whole new world.
First rule: no TV yet.
Foster homes and shelters across the state are scrambling to accommodate 437 children who have until now lived a largely isolated life on the Yearning for Zion Ranch, a sprawling 1,700-acre compound in West Texas.
"These kids don't know who the president is. Don't know that we're at war. Don't know who Elvis was, don't know who the Beatles were," said Bobby Gilliam, director of the Methodist Children's home in Waco, Texas, where some of the children will be staying.
Many of the children have lived a radically different life from the other kids in the state's foster homes. The state Child Protective Services program has said it chose foster homes where the youngsters can be kept apart from other children for now.
The 50 girls who will be coming to the Methodist home in Waco will be woken up at the crack of dawn and given chores similar to what they did on the ranch. It will take time before they are ready to mix with other children and watch TV, Gilliam said.
Social workers are also being given a list of dos and don'ts for how to deal with children who may never have seen television and who were raised in a culture that the state says encourages underage girls to marry older men. Sect members deny the allegation.
Among the rules: Don't ask about their religion, don't press if the children avoid eye contact, and don't allow them to use cell phones.