A Canadian woman says she is related to at least four of the more than 400 children seized from a West Texas polygamist compound more than two weeks ago.
Debbie Palmer, a former member of the polygamist sect in Bountiful, B.C., told CBC News on Monday that Shirley Blackmore, the mother of four of the children, is her step-granddaughter.
She said at least the three youngest of the children would have been born in the Texas compound, which is now embroiled in a massive custody battle.
"We know there are at least six adult females in that community who have come from Bountiful," said Palmer, from Prince Albert, Sask.
Palmer, who has been openly critical of the Bountiful community since she left it in 1988, said that some of the women were underage when they moved to the U.S.
A Phoenix reporter covering the case, Mike Watkiss, said it's been alleged children within the sect have travelled back and forth between the U.S. and Bountiful.
"It's long been suspected that when media or the law enforcement officers start looking for a child [who] may be in distress, that they are often spirited across the border to Canada and vice versa," said Watkiss.
Palmer said by 2001, at least 65 girls had been brought into Canada and 35 moved to the U.S. from Canada.
A Texas court heard Friday during the custody hearings that Canadians were among the youth seized by welfare workers from the Yearning for Zion Ranch, near the town of Eldorado.
The Yearning for Zion Ranch is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway Mormon sect. Built by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, the sect came to West Texas in 2003 and includes about 1,000 followers in Bountiful.
British Columbia Attorney General Wally Oppal has said he was informed by officials in Ottawa that some of the children seized were Canadians.
DNA testing begins
Texan officials began DNA testing on the children Monday with the hopes that the samples will sort out family relationships in the custody case and determine whether sexual abuse may have occurred.
While the children will be tested at the shelter where they are being held, parents will be able to submit samples Tuesday in Eldorado, closer to the ranch.
Child Protective Services spokesman Darrell Azar said the testing will likely take about half an hour per sample because of the paperwork and care needed to avoid contamination. The process will likely take three or four days to be completed.
The testing was ordered by Judge Barbara Walther at the request of state officials, who complained church members have changed their names, lied about their ages and had difficulty naming relatives.
Officials said the family relationships can be confusing because the children of more than one wife live in the same home and identify all the women in the house as their mothers. Additionally, if a father leaves the community, the children and mothers are reassigned to another man, a child welfare investigator testified last week.
State officials will begin to relocate some of the children once DNA sampling is completed.
Azar said it's not clear how soon the children will be moved, but state workers will try to keep them grouped together with siblings or others from the community.
"We're going to try to keep the children in groups so I don't think we're talking about your traditional foster setting," Azar said.
Palmer said she hoped that Blackmore would acknowledge her identity and her Canadian connection so the children could possibly return to Canada.
"We've got women who have been out of the Bountiful community for some time and they are now skilled foster parents," Palmer said. "They'd understand both the background of these children … and they'd be able to help work with the women to help them … be part of a free society."
B.C. sect prays for raided community
The leader of the polygamist sect in British Columbia says he doesn't know if any children from his commune are among the 400 taken into custody.
Winston Blackmore, a leader in the commune in Bountiful, B.C., said while he's had no contact with the Texas sect for six years and is unfamiliar with its members, he is concerned about the seizure of the children.
Allegiances in the southeastern B.C. community are said to be divided between Blackmore and Jeffs, who is in jail in Arizona awaiting a second trial on charges of incest and sexual conduct with a minor.
"Any parent should be concerned about every child, whether they are Canadian or not," Blackmore said during a rare interview with the Canadian Press.
"A lot of those people are our relatives and our friends and I'm concerned about them. I'm sure sorry that [the raid] happened."
Hundreds gathered in the community's temple on Sunday to pray for those in Eldorado, with some of the cars in the parking lot bearing plates from Alberta and Idaho.
Child welfare officials claim the children seized in Eldorado were abused or in imminent danger of abuse because the sect encourages girls younger than 18 to marry and have children. Experts have told the court that many of the women in the sect had children when they were minors, some as young as 13.
Authorities raided the compound on April 3 after receiving reports a 15-year-old girl had married a 50-year-old man and given birth to his child. Officials have not yet located the girl, now 16, who called authorities to say her husband abused her.