April 14, 2008 -- Nearly all the 139 women from the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, who volunteered to accompany the group's children taken by authorities, left police custody late today and headed back to the polygamist sect's rural Texas compound.
Though the 416 children were taken into state custody when authorities entered the Yearning For Zion Ranch to investigate allegations of abuse there earlier this month, the women went along voluntarily to be with their children.
Authorities said all the women except those with children younger than 4 years old were told to leave and return to the ranch.
"It is not the normal practice to allow parents to accompany the child when an abuse allegation is made," Texas Children's Protective Services spokeswoman Marissa Gonzalessaid.
The women left the children today after authorities moved the youngsters to a new shelter following complaints about the conditions of their custody, according to the Texas Department of Child Protective Services, which confirmed the move.
Dozens of buses filled with the children were seen late Monday driving under police escort from Fort Concho, where they had been held since being taken from their ranch earlier this month, to the local coliseum, where some children have already been staying.
The move comes shortly after a local judge indicated she would not make a decision this week on whether to keep the children in state custody or return them to their parents in what is shaping up to be the largest child custody case in state history.
Lawyers from the state bar association are planning an "unprecedented" volunteer effort to provide lawyers for each of the children in time for a hearing on Thursday where the state will have to justify its decision to remove the children.
A spokesman for the families said they would insist each child be represented by a lawyer and that a judge consider each case individually, rather than as a group, presenting a potential logistical nightmare for State District Judge Barbara Walther. "If I gave everybody five minutes, that would be 70 hours," she said at a court hearing on Monday.
But the families argued that the time should not be a factor.
"Just because there are logistical issues doesn't mean they can violate the constitutional rights of 500 parents and children," said Rod Parker, a lawyer who identified himself as a spokesman for the FLDS families.
Parker said there was a "huge amount" of mistrust between the FLDS families and state authorities, adding that some of the mothers who followed their children to the state shelters did not go to court today for fear they would not be allowed to return to the shelters to see their children.
Walther said one of her priorities was to determine how many girls taken from the remote Yearning for Zion Ranch were underage mothers. She said lawyers would be assigned to those girls.
The judge's remarks came a day after a group of mothers from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints sent a letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry asking him to see for himself what they call the "appalling and traumatizing" conditions at the shelter where the children are being held.
During today's hearing, however, the state argued that the children not be returned to the sect's ranch in Eldorado, Texas.
Gary Banks, a lawyer representing Child Protective Services, told the judge the state believes "there is a systematic process at the ranch near Eldorado at which children were exploited and sexually abused."
Authorities raided the compound April 3 after a domestic violence hotline recorded a complaint from a 16-year-old girl who said she was physically and sexually abused by her 50-year-old husband.
If the state retains custody, the children could be placed in foster homes, at least temporarily — another massive undertaking for children raised in the insolated religious sect.
"I think they find themselves suddenly in a very strange world," the Rev. Michael Pfeifer, Bishop of San Angelo, who has toured the shelter, told ABC News.
Parents, Kids Want to Go Home
Pfeifer and others who have been inside the temporary shelters told ABC News that the women and children repeatedly said they wanted to go home. Pfeifer said the conditions inside the shelter were cramped, with cots lined up close together and lots of women tending to infants.
At least one mother, who said she was separated from her older daughter, appeared angry, according to Dr. Stephen Smith, who has treated some of the families. The tearful woman said that state authorities had moved her teenage daughter because they wanted to speak to the girl further.
Smith said he is upset by what he has seen there.
"All of the mothers and children that I spoke with wanted to go back to the ranch, without a doubt," Smith told ABC News. "Personally, it makes me very sad for what we have done." When asked if they were afraid, the women replied, 'Of course not, we have unwavering faith,'" Smith said.
Smith added that the women also said they would forgive state authorities for what they had done.
Some mothers from the Eldorado sect toured the compound's empty homes with reporters and photographers from the Deseret News, a Utah newspaper owned by the Mormon church.
"We are not child abusers. The only abuse they've ever had is since the CPS [Child Protective Services] has taken them," a mother named Shannon told the newspaper.
The mothers say the conditions at the state shelter are so cramped that the children are scared and many are sick. At least a dozen children have contracted chicken pox.
Smith said he talked to a little boy about 7 or 8 who said he liked to sing, and then broke into the hymn, "Mighty Fortress of God."
Texas officials say the state was absolutely right to take custody of all the children.
"These children are with us because we believe they have been abused or neglected, and at this point in time, no one else is going to be visiting those children," said Marlay Mesiner of the Texas Family and Protective Services.
Religious Rights Violated?
Over the weekend, the court authorized a request by officials to confiscate cell phones from sect mothers who were with the children in the shelter. The state's request said it was necessary to prevent "intimidation and tampering with child witnesses."
The teen who made the call for help that prompted the raid has yet to be identified.
The man whom the teen named as her husband, Dale Barlow, a convicted sex offender, was interviewed by Texas Rangers over the weekend in Utah.
Barlow's attorney, Bruce Griffen, says he can prove that Barlow has not been in Texas for years. Barlow has not been taken into police custody.
"We made it very clear to them that their accusations are not accurate," Griffen told ABC News.
The few members of the fundamentalist sect who remain at the Eldorado ranch insist their religious rights have been violated.
"In every way I look at this, it's more of the same. It's religious persecution," said a church member named Richard.
Scott Michels and The Associated Press contributed to this report