Watch CBSN Live

Polygamist Sect Kids To Undergo DNA Tests

More than 400 children taken from a ranch run by a polygamous sect will stay in state custody and be subject to genetic testing, a judge ruled Friday.

State District Judge Barbara Walther heard 21 hours of testimony over two days before ruling that the children be kept by the state. Individual hearings will be set for the children over the next several weeks.

She ordered that all children and parents be given genetic testing. Child welfare officials have said they've had difficulty determining how the children and parents are related because of evasive or changing answers.

Earlier in the day experts for the state testified at the custody hearing for the youngsters, saying girls in the west Texas polygamous sect enter into underage marriages without resistance because they are ruthlessly indoctrinated from birth to believe disobedience will lead to their damnation.

The renegade Mormon sect's belief system "is abusive. The culture is very authoritarian," said Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist and an authority on children in cults.

But under questioning from defense lawyers who lined up in the courtroom aisles to have a turn at each witness, the state's experts acknowledged that the sect mothers are loving parents and that there were no signs of abuse among younger girls and any of the boys.

The testimony came on Day 2 of an extraordinary mass hearing over an attempt by the state of Texas to strip the parents of custody and place the children in foster homes away from the compound inhabited by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

A witness for the parents who was presented by defense lawyers as an expert on the FLDS disputed the state's contention that a bed in the retreat's gleaming white temple was never used to consummate the marriages of underage girls to much older men.

Instead, W. John Walsh testified, it is used for naps during the sect's long worship services.

"There is no sexual activity in the temple," Walsh said.

Read about how the YFZ Ranch was founded as a corporate hunting retreat.
The children were seized this month in a raid on the desert compound because of evidence of physical and sexual abuse, including the forcing of underage girls into marriage and childbearing.

Texas District Judge Barbara Walther boiled it down this way: "The issue before the court is: Can I give them back?"

Attorneys for the children and the parents appeared to be trying to show in cross-examination that their children were fine and that the state was trying to tear families apart on the mere possibility that the girls might be abused when they reach puberty several years from now.

Only a few of the children are teenage girls. Roughly a third are younger than 4 and more than two dozen are teenage boys. But about 20 women or more gave birth when they were minors, some as young as 13, authorities say.

Two mothers in a polygamist sect admitted during testimony that they knew of underage marriages and births at the west Texas ranch raided by authorities two weeks ago.

Lucille Nielson said she was nearly 20 when she got married but knows of roughly a dozen girls younger than 18 who were married at the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado. Another mother admitted that her sisters had children old enough to demonstrate they were married before age 18.

Four mothers testified Friday in a hearing designed to determine whether 416 children taken into state custody should remain there.

The women all spoke in soft, measured tones and often gave only "yes" or "no" answers.

The judge controlled the hundreds of lawyers with a steelier hand Friday than she did the day before.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Under cross-examination, state child-welfare investigator Angie Voss (left) conceded there have been no allegations of abuse against babies, prepubescent girls or any boys.

But her agency, Child Protective Services, contends that the teachings of the FLDS - to marry shortly after puberty, have as many children as possible and obey their fathers or their prophet, imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs - amount to abuse.

"This is a population of women who appear to have a problem making a decision on their own," Voss said.

In response, the FLDS women groaned in chorus with their dark-suited attorneys.

Walsh disputed that young girls have no say in who they marry.

"Basically, they're into match-making," he said of the sect, adding that girls who have refused matches have not been expelled.

"I believe the girls are given a real choice. Girls have successfully said, 'No, this is not a good match for me,' and they remained in good standing," he said.

Perry testified that the girls he interviewed said they freely chose to marry young. But he said those choices were based on lessons drilled into them from birth.

"Obedience is a very important element of their belief system," he said. "Compliance is being godly; it's part of their honoring God."

(AP Photo/Brigitte Woosley)

Perry (left) acknowledged that many of the adults at the ranch are loving parents and that the boys seemed emotionally healthy when he played with them. When asked whether the belief system really endangered the older boys or young children, Perry said, "I have lost sleep over that question."

Under questioning, Perry also conceded the children would suffer if placed in traditional foster care.

"If these children are kept in the custody of the state, there would have to be exceptional and innovative programmatic elements for these children and their families," he said. "The traditional foster care system would be destructive for these children."

At that, dozens of FLDS parents applauded.

Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor, said courts have generally held that a parent's belief system cannot, in itself, justify a child's removal. He said, for example, that a parent might teach his child that smoking marijuana is acceptable, but only when he helps the child buy pot does he cross the line.

"The general view of the legal system is until there is an imminent risk of harm or actual harm, you can't" take the children, Volokh said.

The raid was prompted by a call from someone identifying herself as a 16-year-old girl with the sect. She claimed her husband, a 50-year-old member of the sect, beat and raped her. Investigators have yet to identify her among the children seized.

Rod Parker, one of the attorneys representing the sect, told CBS News that he doubts she even exists.

Jeffs is in prison for being an accomplice to rape. He was convicted in Utah last year of forcing a 14-year-old into marrying an older man.

Walsh testified that the renegade Mormon sect did not promote underage marriages until imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs took over as the sect's "prophet."

"He encourages marriage," Walsh said. "In some ways, he's indifferent to their age."

Identifying children and parents has been difficult because members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have given different names and ages at various times, Voss said. The state has asked that DNA be taken from all of the children and their alleged parents to help determine biological connections. The judge has not ruled on that request.

The court hearing disintegrated into farce early Thursday, as hundreds of lawyers who descended on San Angelo for the proceedings shouted objections or lined up to cross-examine witnesses. The judge struggled to maintain order.

One of the issues is whether authorities overstepped their bounds, reports CBS News correspondent Hari Sreenivasan. In a household where abuse is suspected, Texas law allows every child to be removed, so defining "household" could become pivotal.

In a possibly related development, police in Colorado Springs, Colo., have made an arrest of a 33-year-old woman and charged her with false reporting to authorities, reports Sreenivasan. At the moment, it is in an unrelated case, but the arrest did happen a day after Texas Rangers were investigating what happened in San Angelo.

Colorado Springs police Lieutenant Skip Arms says Rozita Swinton was arrested in Colorado Springs on Wednesday on a misdemeanor charge of false reporting to authorities. The incident occurred in February.

Arms says the Texas Rangers notified officials in Colorado Springs they were coming to the city as part of an investigation into the polygamist sect and into Swinton.

Arms says the Rangers left without filing charges against Swinton.

Authorities raided the Texas compound on April 3rd.

Since March 29th, Swinton has been talking to Flora Jessop, the executive director of the Child Protection Project - a Phoenix-based organization that helps girls and women leaving the polygamous culture.

Agency founder Linda Walker says Jessop is a former member of the FLDS church who recorded the calls and passed the information on to law enforcement.

Walker won't say if she and Jessop believe Swinton is tied to the Texas call that brought about the raid, but says most of the details she gave about FLDS culture and beliefs were accurate.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
"Also Friday, a woman who had been in a similar sect told Early Show anchor Julie Chen why the women in the sect dress in old-fashioned pioneer garb.

"This clothing started being restricted after the 1953 raid (on a polygamist compound in Colorado City, Ariz.),'' said Carol Jessop, author of the book "Escape."

"And at first, it was just that women couldn't wear pants any longer and they had to wear a dress or a skirt that was a certain length, and long sleeves and no low necks. Their hair had to be combed on top of the head. It couldn't be left hanging. Then, every five or six years, there would be another restriction added."