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Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints arrive at the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas, on Thursday. ((Eric Gay/Associated Press))

One of the largest custody cases in American history, involving more than 400 children seized from a polygamist sect in west Texas, descended into chaos Thursday as the judge tried to keep control over hundreds of lawyers.

By late afternoon, only two witnesses — a state trooper and a child welfare investigator — had testified at Thursday's court hearing, and no decisions had been made, the Associated Press reported.

Texas State District Judge Barbara Walther has the task of deciding the fate of 416 children removed from a compound owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The children were seized almost two weeks ago after a 16-year-old called an abuse hot line alleging her husband, a 50-year-old member of the sect, beat and raped her.

After just 40 minutes of proceedings in the San Angelo courtroom, Walther was forced to call an hourlong recess after the first attempt to admit evidence.

Walther wanted to allow the 350 lawyers — representing children, parents and Child Protective Services and spread out in two buildings — to read the evidence and decide whether to object en masse or make individual objections.

Prosecutors in San Angelo had tried to enter into evidence the medical records of three girls — two 17-year-olds and an 18-year-old.

Chorus of objections

Later, witness testimony provided more difficulties.

When the state trooper was cross-examined by dozens of attorneys, each asked the same question on behalf of an individual child or parent.

Even when the court was dealing with minor legal points, Walther struggled to keep order of the chaotic chorus of lawyers present in the courtroom and a nearby auditorium connected via a video feed.

At times, the hearing disintegrated into shouting by dozens of lawyers trying to object or file motions.

When an objection was made about the proper admission of medical records of the children, the judge threw up her hands and asked: "I assume most of you want to make the same objection. Can I have a universal, 'Yes, Judge'?"

Hundreds of lawyers in both buildings stood and said in unison: "Yes, Judge."

No evidence of sexual abuse: state trooper

Some details of life at the ranch eventually began to emerge when the other witness testified, child welfare investigator Angie Voss said.

She told the court how when one of the men fell out of favour with the church, his wives and children were reassigned to other men. Those men would then be identified as the children's father.

Voss said this contributed to the problem of identifying children's family links and their ages.

The other person to testify, Department of Public Safety Sgt. Danny Crawford, told the court about their discovery of a church bishop's records taken from a safe at the ranch that listed about 38 families. Under repeated cross-examination, Crawford acknowledged the records contained no evidence of sexual abuse.

Child welfare officials allege in court documents that the children were in danger of "emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse" at the 700-hectare compound in the town of Eldorado, about 300 kilometres northwest of San Antonio.

Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, members say the state is persecuting them for their faith, and they deny children were abused.

The case involves children ranging in age from six months to 17 years. Roughly 100 of the children are under the age of four.

The judge must decide whether the children ought to be returned to the compound or be placed in permanent foster care.

"Our attorneys are going to take all the evidence we have and make a case for keeping the children in our care," Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marissa Gonzales told the Associated Press.

Definition of home a major issue

Most of the children have been living in a domed coliseum on the fairgrounds in San Angelo. Twenty-seven teenage boys are at a boys ranch near Amarillo.

If CPS is given permanent custody of the children, the agency will begin looking for foster homes.

A major issue will be how a home is defined — whether by the individual house each child lived in or by the larger ranch, lawyer Susan Hays, who represents a two-year-old child, told the Associated Press. 

Under Texas law, if sexual abuse is occurring in a home and a parent does not stop it, then the parent can lose custodial rights.

The judge also must decide whether it's in the best interest of children who have lived insulated lives to be suddenly placed into mainstream society, Hays said. Authorities say they have had difficulty identifying groups of siblings.

"There's quite a lot of difficulty in identifying how many of these children are biologically related to one another. There's a large number who are half-siblings," Gonzales said.

The sect, built by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, came to west Texas in 2003. It includes about 1,000 followers in the religious community of Bountiful, B.C.

Jeffs is in jail in Arizona, where he is awaiting a second trial on charges of incest and sexual conduct with a minor.

With files from the Associated Press