San Angelo, Texas - Texas authorities said on Thursday they identified 25 more mothers below age 18 among those removed from a polygamist compound, raising to about 460 the number of minors at the heart of a huge abuse probe.
An apparent phone tip earlier this month led to a raid on the ranch in a remote part of west Texas and the removal of the children. The compound is linked to a breakaway Mormon sect and is run by followers of jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs.
Texas welfare and law enforcement officials say they have uncovered evidence of widespread child abuse on the grounds, with adolescent girls being forced into unions with much older men.
The 25 additional teenage mothers who have been sorted from the adults and who initially claimed to be adults may provide prosecutors with more ammunition if it was found for example that some had become pregnant when they were in their early teens.
Officials would not say how old the mothers were beyond the fact all are believed to be under 18.
Authorities this week have been moving the children into foster homes as well as taking DNA samples in a bid to find out who is related to whom. About 260 remain in temporary shelter in a heavily guarded rodeo stadium in the west Texas town of San Angelo.
Over 60 women left the stadium on Thursday as the wrenching process of separating the women and children continued.
'THESE CHILDREN MUST BE PROTECTED'
Darrell Azar, a spokesman for the Department of Child Protective Services, told a news briefing outside the stadium on Thursday that pulling the families apart as the probe widens was a "difficult thing. But these children must be protected."
On Thursday, one of the women who left the stadium held a sign outside the window of a bus that read: "SOS. MOTHERS SEPARATED. HELP."
The compound is about 45 miles (72 km) south of San Angelo in an isolated part of Texas. The investigation is the largest child welfare case in the history of the state and shrouded in confusion.
Local media reports have suggested the calls that sparked the raid may have been a hoax by a woman in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who has a history of such acts.
Azar said it did not matter if it was a hoax or not because evidence of abuse was being unearthed.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints regards plural marriage as ordained by God and the sect's followers have tended to keep to themselves in isolated corners of Arizona, Utah and elsewhere.
The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon faith is officially called, renounced polygamy over a century ago and is at pains to distance itself from its few thousand kin who still practice plural marriage.
Polygamy is outlawed in the United States but the men of such sects typically have one legal wife and take others as "spiritual wives."
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Cooney)