San Angelo, Texas - More than 400 children removed by investigators from a West Texas polygamist compound are in state legal custody in an unprecedented child welfare case that grows more complex by the day.
Women and children from the ranch waited to be interviewed by caseworkers Monday at Fort Concho in San Angelo, Texas. The youths' fate is uncertain; a hearing in the case has been scheduled for April 17.
The children face an uncertain fate, experts say, including months of legal wrangling over them and the increasing possibility that most won't be returned to the remote religious ranch. A judge has scheduled a hearing for April 17.
Meanwhile, state officials must now care for and find foster families for children who have led a mostly monastic life, one where pop culture is an anathema and the outside world is an evil.
"They're going to need a lot of people that understand their culture and history," said Sam Brower, a Utah private investigator who has made several visits to the 1,700-acre Eldorado compound, run by followers of jailed polygamist Warren Jeffs. "They're trying to communicate with people that have lived out their lives in a cave basically - very, very isolated."
As of Monday, 401 children - from infants to teenage mothers - had been bused from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints compound to San Angelo, housed inside an old Army fort that is now a museum. They were accompanied by 133 women who came voluntarily and aren't bound to stay, state officials said.
Authorities say they've found most of the children, but the search continues.
"In my opinion, this is the largest endeavor we've ever been involved with in the state of Texas," said Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner. "This is not about numbers. This is about children who are at imminent risk of harm, children we believe have been abused or neglected."
In court filings released Monday, representatives for the religious sect lashed out at the raid, calling it unconstitutional and an "irreparable" desecration of their way of life.
In a filing asking the judge for a restraining order, they compared the state's actions at their compound to "authorities rummaging through the Vatican." A hearing has been set for Wednesday.
Still unaccounted for is the 16-year-old girl who sparked the investigation with a phone call saying she'd given birth to her 50-year-old husband's child - though officials said she may well be included in those already removed from the compound. The alleged husband, Dale Barlow, has not been arrested, but has reportedly been living in Arizona. Texas officials would not confirm whether they've visited with Mr. Barlow, who was sentenced to jail last year for conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor.
Also on Monday, authorities said they had arrested one individual at the compound for interfering with the investigation. They had no other details on the crime, classified as a misdemeanor.
Kristyn Decker, a former Utah polygamist, believes her sister is in the Eldorado group and is the mother or stepmother of Mr. Barlow.
Ms. Decker, who left the Apostolic United Brethren in 2002, said she hasn't seen or heard from her sister Lorna Lucille Barlow in 10 years, but that an aunt told her "that Warren Jeffs had moved her out there [to Eldorado] and we wouldn't hear from her ever again."
Ms. Decker was hoping Monday that her sister, who joined FLDS at 14, was among those who left the compound.
"I believe with all my heart they're just terrified and devastated," she said of the women and children who have been removed. "Right now they think that we're the bad people and they've been told that all of their lives."
With Monday's announcement, the Eldorado operation is larger than the July 1953 raids on Short Creek, Utah, where more than 300 FLDS women and children were sent to foster homes.
At the time, Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle, in a statewide radio address, called the community "the foulest conspiracy you could imagine" and said it was "dedicated to the production of white slaves."
In the Short Creek case, future Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow was arrested; in Eldorado, authorities have an arrest warrant for Dale Barlow, the man reported to be his son.
Paul Murphy, a spokesman for the Utah attorney general's office, said Monday that the religious group, which has thousands of members scattered across the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., still talks about the 1953 raids "like it was yesterday."
But in the case of Short Creek, the families were eventually reunited after a public backlash against the governor.
"We have 150 years of history where they have feared the government. They feared the government would come in and take all of their children," Mr. Murphy said.
With those fears realized again this week, breaking down communication and cultural barriers with the women and children won't be easy, many say.
"If I were the people down there, I would start trying to look for foster homes in the mainstream LDS [Mormon] community," said Mr. Brower.
"At least a LDS family may at least be able to understand a little bit of what they're talking about. You put these kids in a Southern Baptist home with somebody trying to witness to them, you're just going to freak them out."
Texas CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said the agency has cast a "wide net" to locate all available resources to help. He did not rule out placing children outside the state.
Men can't leave
Life in Eldorado returned largely to normal on Monday, as the attention shifted to nearby San Angelo. Media swarmed county buildings and the local courthouse, and stood watch outside the shelter where the children are first brought before being sent to San Angelo. In the district clerk's office, employees could be heard typing in the names of the mothers, many of whom shared last names.
"Be careful, 'cause I've already had three different Barlows," one receptionist chimed.
While many mothers have access to their children, the fathers have not been allowed to leave the compound.
Department of Public Safety officials said Monday that troopers are "controlling access" into and out of the ranch while they finish executing search warrants. Tela Mange, a DPS spokeswoman, said law enforcement will stay at the ranch as long as they need to. She said charges will be filed if investigators determine abuse has occurred.
What is certain is that the children removed from the compound face a long road.
The children are undergoing one-on-one interviews, Ms. Meisner said. They'll each get a court-appointed attorney and a guardian. And child welfare experts say the next two weeks will probably result in one of two outcomes:
- In the first scenario, the mothers and fathers may fight to bring their children back to the compound with them. In that case, a judge would have to determine the child's fate at a hearing, and foster placements would be more likely.
- In the second scenario, the experts say the mothers might enter an agreement with the district judge, either that they'd leave the compound with their children or move their children in with relatives outside the ranch. If the children's fathers don't ask for a hearing, the mothers could relocate with the children.
"If the children are with their mothers, and if the mothers are compliant with authorities, then chances are [the children] would never go into foster care," said Scott McCown, a former district judge and executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. Authorities "would attempt to help the mother find a placement for herself and her children."
In either scenario, they say, the 15- and 16-year-old girls and the babies they've had with adult husbands will likely be put in permanent foster homes.