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Texas officials believe 25 sect moms under 18

Image: FLDS mother holds sign
A female member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, holds a sign out of a chartered bus that reads, "SOS Mothers Separated Help," as she simultaneously yelled out the window, "Help, mothers kidnapped." Her bus departed the San Angelo Coliseum on Thursday. Tony Gutierrez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The number of children in Texas custody after being taken from a polygamist retreat stands at 462 because officials believe another 25 mothers from the compound are under 18.

Child Protective Services spokesman Darrell Azar said the girls initially claimed to be adults but are now in state custody. Earlier they had been staying voluntarily with their children at a shelter at the San Angelo Coliseum.

The official number of children taken from the ranch controlled by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been rising since a state raid three weeks ago. One reason was that some mothers under 18 claimed to be adults.

Roughly 260 children remain at the coliseum. The others were bused to foster facilities.

The Texas appeals court on Thursday agreed to hear arguments that hundreds of sect children should be allowed to see their mothers while the massive custody case is resolved.

The Yearning For Zion Ranch was raided three weeks ago, but many of the mothers were allowed to stay with their children until last Thursday when two buses took the women from the coliseum.

The women were moved out in preparation for moving the last of 437 children to group homes, shelters and residences over the next few days. Buses earlier had taken 138 of the children away.

One woman on Thursday held up a cardboard sign that read, "SOS; Mothers Separated; Help."

Sect children moved into foster care
The 3rd Court of Appeals Thursday set a hearing for Tuesday on the motion from dozens of mothers to remain in contact with their children. State officials last week had ordered all mothers away except for those with children under 5.

After raiding the ranch, owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, state officials took custody of all children found there, believing they might be victims of physical or sexual abuse. The move sparked one of the biggest child-custody cases in U.S. history, a case complicated by a tangled web of family bonds.

Experts and lawyers fear the children's transition to foster care may be much harder than it is for other foster children. They will be plunged into a culture radically different from the community where they and their families shunned the outside world as a hostile, contaminating influence.

Many of the children have seen little or no television. They have been essentially home-schooled all their lives. Most were raised on garden-grown vegetables and twice-daily prayers with family. They frolic in long dresses and buttoned-up shirts from another century.

"There's going to be problems," said Susan Hays, who represents a toddler in the custody case. "They are a throwback to the 19th century in how they dress and how they behave."

Keeping sect kids away from others
The state Child Protective Services program said it chose foster homes where the youngsters can be kept apart from children not from the sect for now.

"We recognize it's critical that these children not be exposed to mainstream culture too quickly or other things that would hinder their success," agency spokeswoman Shari Pulliam said. "We just want to protect them from abuse and neglect. We're not trying to change them."

Authorities say the FLDS church, a renegade Mormon splinter group, believes in marrying off underage girls to older men, and that there is evidence of physical and sexual abuse at the ranch.

The individual custody cases could result in a number of possibilities: Some children could be placed in permanent foster care; some parents who have left the sect may win custody; some youngsters may be allowed to return to the ranch in Eldorado, Texas; and some may turn 18 before the case is complete and be allowed to choose their own fates.