A judge ruled yesterday that 416 children seized by authorities during a raid on a polygamous sect's compound are at risk of sexual abuse if they stay with the group and must be placed into foster care.
Texas District Judge Barbara L. Walther's ruling came after a chaotic, two-day hearing that involved several hundred attorneys and two buildings filled with witnesses, reporters and members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway Mormon sect that believes in divinely inspired, under-age polygamous marriage.
Walther ordered that all 416 children and all other sect members be given DNA tests for maternity and paternity, "This is but the beginning," she said. Individual hearings will be set for the children over the next several weeks.
Child welfare officials say they've had difficulty determining how the children and adults are related because of vague, evasive or changing answers.
A mobile lab will take samples Monday at the main shelter where children are being kept. Parents will be able to submit samples Tuesday in El Dorado, closer to the sect's compound.
State witnesses testified earlier yesterday that more than 20 of the children appeared to have been born to underage mothers.
Before the ruling, evidence surfaced that the phone call that sparked the April 3 raid on the FLDS compound might have been a hoax.
Authorities stormed the compound after receiving what they said was a call for help from a 16-year-old girl who said her husband was abusing her. Authorities did not find the girl or her husband but took the other children after discovering what they said was evidence the youths may have been subjected to abuse.
On Wednesday night, police in Colorado Springs, Colo., arrested Rozita Swinton, 33, for allegedly making false reports to authorities. Texas Rangers were present for the arrest. A judge has sealed all paperwork related to the case, and officials in Texas and Colorado would not say whether Swinton was linked to the FLDS raid.
Flora Jessop, a former sect member who now helps girls who say they were abused, told ABC News on Thursday night that she received calls from a person claiming to be the 16-year-old in question. Jessop said she recorded those calls, and authorities traced them to Colorado Springs.
Swinton has a history of posing as girls in trouble. Last year, she pleaded guilty to making a false report to police in Castle Rock,Colo. In that case she claimed she was a 16-year-old who wanted to give away her newborn son and kill herself.
Police thought she sounded like a teen-ager, said Douglas Ernst of the Castle Rock Police Department: "They were quite surprised she was older. She was about 30 at the time. She did sound like a mid- to late-teen female."
Experts said that even if the initial call to Texas authorities was fraudulent, it would have no impact on the fate of the hundreds of children now in state custody.
"The legal question is not whether the information the police rely on is correct, but whether they were reasonable in believing that they had cause to enter" the compound, said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a law professor at the University of Houston.
Shari Pulliam, a spokeswoman for Texas Child Protective Services, said that what led authorities to the ranch isn't important - what matters is that they found signs of abuse there.
"We removed the children based on what we found at the ranch - based on evidence we found of sexual abuse of young teen girls and a pattern of grooming these girls," she said.
The leader of the FLDS, Warren Jeffs, was convicted last year in Utah of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl he ordered to marry her 18-year-old cousin. He faces similar charges in Arizona. The FLDS base is on the border of those two states. Its El Dorado ranch was built three years ago, possibly because of stepped-up pressure in Utah and Arizona.
Jenny Jarvie and DeeDee Correll write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.