Sorting Out Massive Polygamist Custody Case

But the raid backfired. Public opinion turned against the government after images of crying children being torn from their parents were splashed on the front pages of newspapers across the country. The raid has been widely credited with ending Gov. Henry Pyle's political career.

The two raids have followed much the same process. Officials searched for birth certificates, census records and other documents to sort out the complicated family trees within the isolated communities.

Prominent leaders of the Mormon church publicly encouraged the prosecutions in 1953. These days, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Mormon from Nevada, has urged the federal government to get involved in prosecuting the FLDS polygamists.

But there were important differences, says former sect member Bistline, who wrote "The Polygamists," a history of the FLDS community in Short Creek, later renamed Colorado City, Ariz. The sect today, he said, is more extreme than it was in the 1950s.

"We weren't ordered to marry, we had dances, we had freedom to do what we wanted to do," he said. "It was just a normal situation."

"The people taken from Short Creek weren't criminals, they were just normal people," Bistline said.

The criminal case lasted just six months, ending when prosecutors offered the men a deal: They would drop all charges against the women if the men pleaded guilty to conspiracy — a misdemeanor. The men accepted the deal and were sentenced to one-year probation.

Back to Normalcy

The women were told to disavow polygamy and stop teaching it at their schools, according to Bradley's book. Though the women refused, the sect's children were sent home after two years in legal limbo.

"The lesson was, God won the battle for them," said Rena Mackert, a former FLDS member who was born a few months after the Short Creek raid. "The men all came home. The women came home. The children came home. And life was back to the status quo."

According to Bistline, changes started "immediately after folks came back in 1955." By the 1960s, he said, church leaders were telling girls whom they could marry. "And it just kept getting worse," he said.

Church leaders like Warren Jeffs, now in a Utah prison for being an accomplice to rape, took dozens of wives for themselves, Bistline said.

He said he thought the raid in Texas was justified, though he believed the children should be returned to their mothers.

In order for that to happen, CPS has drafted 10 goals and 14 tasks that parents will have to work toward to regain custody of their children, according to family service plans obtained by ABC News.

The service plan goals say the parents must show that they understand what is meant by abuse. A CPS supervisor testified at a hearing last month that sect girls believed no age was too young to get married.

The plan asks parents to cooperate with DNA testing and to help authorities establish paternity and family relationships. Tasks include participating in parenting classes, psychiatric evaluations and following the recommendations of counselors.

Cookie Cutter Approach?

McCown called the service plans typical for child custody cases. "The parent has to have a stable place to live and a stable job and a real willingness not to repeat past patterns," he said.

But lawyers for the parents complain that the state is using the same plan for all children, regardless of circumstances.

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