San Angelo - The belief system at a polygamous sect is abusive and teen girls do not resist early marriages because they are trained to be obedient and compliant, an expert testified Friday in a custody hearing for 416 children seized from a secluded ranch.
Many of the women had children when they were minors, some as young as 13, a child welfare worker said earlier in the child custody hearing, one of the largest and most convoluted in U.S. history.
State District Judge Barbara Walther must decide whether the children will remain in state custody. Child welfare officials claim the children were abused or in imminent danger of abuse because the sect encourages girls younger than 18 to marry and have children.
An expert in children in cults testified Friday that while the teen girls believed they were marrying out of free choice, it's a choice based on lessons they've had from birth.
"Obedience is a very important element of their belief system," said psychiatrist Bruce Perry, who interviewed three girls seized in the April 3 raid. "Compliance is being godly, it's part of their honoring God."
He also said that many of the adults at the Yearning For Zion Ranch owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are loving parents and that the boys seemed emotionally healthy when he played with them.
But, he noted, the sect's belief system "is abusive. The culture is very authoritarian."
Child welfare investigator Angie Voss testified Thursday that at least five girls who are younger than 18 are pregnant or have children. Voss said some of the women identified as adults with children may be juveniles, or may have had children when they were younger than 18.
Identifying children and parents has been difficult because members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have given different names and ages at various times, Voss said. The state has asked that DNA be taken from all of the children and their alleged parents to help determine biological connections. The judge has not ruled on that request.
The court hearing disintegrated into farce early Thursday, as hundreds of lawyers who descended on San Angelo for the proceedings shouted objections or lined up to cross-examine witnesses. The judge struggled to maintain order.
On Friday, Walther was testier - and stricter, cutting off prolonged cross-examinations of a witness when a line of 10 defense lawyers had formed to ask essentially the same questions. She solicited objections when she felt questioning was going on too long.
The renegade Mormon sect is led by Warren Jeffs, who is currently awaiting trial in a Kingman, Ariz., jail on charges related to the promotion of underage marriages. He previously was convicted of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old wed to her cousin in a Utah case.
The sect came to West Texas in 2003, relocating some members from the church's traditional home along the Utah-Arizona state line.
Authorities raided the 1,700-acre ranch south of here in Eldorado on April 3 and began removing children while seeking evidence of underage girls being married to adults. Walther signed an emergency order giving the state custody of the children taken from the ranch.
The raid was prompted by a call from someone identifying herself as a 16-year-old girl with the sect. She claimed her husband, a 50-year-old member of the sect, beat and raped her.
The girl has yet to be identified, though Voss said a girl matching her description was seen by other girls in the ranch garden four days before the raid began.
Associated Press writer Jennifer Dobner in San Angelo contributed to this report.