San Angelo, Texas - Dozens of mothers from a polygamist retreat were bused away from their children Thursday, their legal efforts to stay united rejected as Texas officials sort out their massive custody case.
Two buses took the women from the San Angelo Coliseum, where they had been temporarily housed with their children. Texas officials were preparing to move the last of more than 400 children to group homes, shelters and residences, some hundreds of miles away, over the next few days.
One woman held a handwritten sign out the bus window that read: "SOS. Mothers separated. Help."
"There are no words to describe how it was," said Velvet, a mother who was forced to leave her 13-month old. She and other sect women have refused to give their last names, fearing it will affect their custody cases.
"We've been staying up nights to watch over the children because we didn't know what would happen," she said in a news conference outside the ranch gates Thursday.
In Austin, the state's 3rd Court of Appeals rejected the mothers' pleas to immediately stop authorities from busing the children taken from the ranch to foster homes.
The court agreed to hear arguments Tuesday, but attorney Robert Doggett, who represents 48 mothers, said that "having a hearing after the fact" was pointless.
"It could very well be there's some good reasons to remove some of those children, absolutely," Doggett said. "But to suggest all of them be painted with this broad brush because they belong to a particular religion is a very dangerous thing, and that's why we have courts."
The Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, south of San Angelo, was raided April 3 and is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a renegade Mormon sect.
Texas officials allege that the sect encourages adolescent girls to marry older men and have children, and that boys are groomed to become future perpetrators. Sect members deny the allegations.
"That's all it is, an allegation," said Willie Jessop, an FLDS leader, said Thursday.
Child welfare officials removed the children on suspicion of physical and sexual abuse after a family violence center received calls from a female saying she was a 16-year-old girl inside the compound whose 49-year-old husband beat and raped her. A judge awarded the state temporary custody last week.
The case has been marked by confusion, even on the number of children involved. The state's count rose, for the second time, to 462 on Thursday because officials believe 25 more mothers from the compound who had claimed to be adults are under 18.
About 260 children remain in the Coliseum as state Child Protective Services prepares to move them. Agency officials say that they'll move them as soon as possible but that no timeline as been set.
Authorities are investigating whether the call that prompted the raid came from a woman in Colorado who has a history of making fake calls to authorities. The purported 16-year-old caller has not been identified, but state child welfare officials say that their investigation has uncovered evidence of abuse and that they responded to the call in good faith.
"It's really what we found that mattered," said Child Protective Services spokesman Darrell Azar.
Last week state officials separated mothers from their children unless the kids were 5 or younger, an exception that meant many of the mothers were able to stay until Thursday.
"There were tears by the children, by the women and by some of our caseworkers," Azar said of the parting.
The women separated from their kids were given a choice to go back to the ranch or a "safe" location. Velvet, one of the women who returned to the ranch, said the others went with Child Protective Services, fearing they'd never be allowed to see their children again if they didn't.