Texas officials revise number of children taken from polygamist ranch
DNA testing has begun to try to identify parents
Authorities in Texas raised the tally of children seized from a polygamist ranch to 437 on Tuesday after discovering that some of the mothers who volunteered to stay with their children are younger than 18.
Authorities moved into the Yearning for Zion ranch in early April after reports a teenage girl married a 50-year-old man and had his child. At the time, authorities said they had seized 416 children, and that some women who said they were the mothers had gone with them voluntarily.
The children are being housed at a San Angelo sports coliseum while officials take DNA samples to try to identify their parents. The testing involves a cheek swab, while each child is also photographed.
The ranch, near Eldorado, Texas, is home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, part of a sect that broke away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon Church, after the latter disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.
Authorities believe the sect forces girls younger than 16 into marriages with older men, which is illegal in Texas. State officials said they took the children from the ranch to prevent them from being abused.
A state child welfare official said last week that some of the children taken from the ranch are Canadian, likely from the polygamist community of Bountiful, B.C.
Hundreds of lawyers are involved in the massive custody case. Some have clients as young as a few months old, while others represent parents trying to get their children back.
For the most part, neither the children nor their parents are co-operating with the authorities.
District Judge Barbara Walthers on Monday rejected a request to allow a private prayer room for some of the mothers, saying they could coach their children about what to tell investigators.
She also refused to bar child protective services from placing breastfeeding children in foster care.
Lawyer Julie Balovich, who represents five mothers, said state authorities have told her those placements will be made quickly and without notice.
"They're supposed to look at relatives and kin and other alternatives to removal," she said. "To the best of our knowledge, after DNA testing, [the children] are going to be split up."
Guy Choate, a spokesman for the court-appointed lawyers representing the children, said he doesn't doubt the families involved love their children.
"God's going to ultimately decide whether there was justice. They got due process, they got represented well," he said.
The sect has set up a website featuring photos and videos of the raid on the ranch, with titles such as "Sad Captive Children" and "Girls Taken Away." The site also offers a link to donate money to the children's legal defence fund.
With files from the Associated Press