May 19, 2008 — -- During a series of hearings beginning today, Texas child protection workers are expected to tell a judge that members of a West Texas polygamous sect must renounce an alleged decades-long practice of marrying underage girls to older men if they want to regain custody of their children.
The hearings -- individual status meetings for all 464 children in state custody -- are the latest step in what is believed to be the largest child protection case in U.S. history, a sprawling process that already has cost millions of dollars and promises to continue into next year.
Texas officials will present a series of steps that Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints parents will have to follow in order for their children to be returned, including proving they can provide a home free from potential child abusers and demonstrating the ability to protect children from abuse.
"You can't be in bigamist marriages, and the other thing you can't do is marry off young teenagers to very old men," said Scott McCown, a former Texas district court judge.
"If they are not willing to give that up, the state's position is going to be that the children are never going to go home. That's going to be state's non-negotiable bottom line," McCown said.
But this is not the first time the sect's practices have been challenged by state authorities, and it was unclear what the long-term impact will be on the polygamous group, which has been raided by authorities in several states four times in the last 75 years.
Though Arizona arrested dozens of men and took hundreds of children into custody in 1953, that raid appeared to have little effect on the group's beliefs or practices, leading some to question whether the results will be any different in Texas.
"I think it will be a repeat of history," said Martha Bradley, a University of Utah professor and author of "Kidnapped From That Land," a study of the now-infamous 1953 raid on the town known then as Short Creek.
Within two years of the raid, all sect members were back in Short Creek.
"Every one of them came back home," said Benjamin Bistline, a former sect member who was 18 at the time.
Texas officials took all of the sect's children into custody last month, claiming the group encourages marriages between underage girls and older men, placing the children at risk of abuse, which sect members deny.
The state believes as many as 31 girls in state custody are under age and either pregnant or are already mothers, a number that has been disputed by the church. The state also claims it has evidence of broken bones and sexual abuse among the boys.
Texas Child Protective Services has said that its ultimate goal is family reunification by April, though if a judge finds the FLDS parents cannot create a safe environment, they can permanently lose custody of their children.
Some lawyers for the children and the sect already have criticized the state's reunification plan, claiming it could require mothers to disavow their religious beliefs and could be read to mean that the mothers would not be allowed to return to their homes on the Yearning for Zion Ranch.
"Every indication from CPS [child protective services] that we have from their actions suggests that would be the case," said Rod Parker, a longtime FLDS lawyer who is acting as a family spokesman.
Patrick Crimmons, a CPS spokesman, called that "rank speculation."
The plan, obtained by ABC News, "doesn't say anything about religious beliefs. It doesn't say anything about polygamy," he said. "All it says is that if they want the kids returned to them, they are going to have to be protected."
The church has cast the case as the latest attack on its religious rights -- the continuation of a conflict that has gone on for more than 70 years between the fundamentalist sect and the government .
Last month's raid in Texas is the fourth carried out against the sect by police in different states. The group's largest community, known as Short Creek, straddling the Arizona and Utah borders, was raided in 1935, 1944 and 1953.
The 1953 raid was the most determined by prosecutors. Authorities swept into Short Creek, arrested 36 men and took 86 women and 263 children into state custody and sent them to small towns throughout the state.
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.
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 plan says parents must demonstrate the ability to protect the children from abuse and neglect, and the ability to "provide a home free of persons who have or will abuse or neglect the children."
The service plan goals also 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.
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.
"Each and every client has received that exact same document," said Cynthia Martinez of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, which represents about 50 sect mothers.
Some mothers are in monogamous relationships and live in single-family households, unlike many members of the sect, who live in group family homes, she said.
Crimmons, the CPS spokesman, called the plans a starting point and said caseworkers would meet with individual clients before today and add details specific to each child. As of Friday afternoon, many had not met with their caseworkers, according to Martinez.