Editor's note: For exclusive video from the YFZ Ranch, click here.
YFZ RANCH, Texas The children's shoes still sit neatly, side by side where they last left them. Child-sized shovels and miniature wheelbarrows sit on the porch of their three-story, log cabin-like home.
The only noise now emanating from this 1,700-acre compound is the rustle of the wind, birds chirping, the occasional scurry of a roadrunner or a truck traveling along the dirt roads.
"It's miserable. It's too quiet," says Nancy, struggling to keep her emotional voice loud enough to be heard.
This grandmother and others at the reclusive ranch belonging to the Fundamentalist LDS Church on Saturday allowed the Deseret News onto their land and into their homes, which were raided last week by Texas authorities. All 416 children who lived there were removed and placed into temporary state custody.
It was the first time they had allowed the media access to places they consider private and sacred. During interviews with ranch residents, FLDS officials insisted that questions remain focused on the children's plight and declined to discuss other topics, including allegations of physical and sexual abuse.
Those who spoke asked that only their first names be used.
Collectively, their hearts are broken but their spirits undaunted.
"If you know what it's like to have a little child look you in the eyes, throw their arms around your neck, smile and give you a hug, then you know what it's like (here now)," she said, turning her head and sobbing into her shoulder.
The leader of the Yearning For Zion Ranch says he doesn't understand how the government could sweep in and seize all their children based on an unproven allegation.
"This whole situation is abusive and out of hand," said Merril Jessop, a presiding elder in the FLDS Church. "The nearest thing I have ever seen comparable to this, even on the TV shows, is Nazi Germany."
"The only thing we ask of the governor and citizens of Texas," Jessop said, "is to give every man, woman and child due process and an attorney before they destroy their lives."
Jessop extended Texas' governor an invitation to come and see where these children are now and what conditions they are being placed under and then to come and see what kind of home they were taken from.
Jessop then went one further, inviting a fellow Texan, President George Bush, to come and see what the state is doing to its citizens. "What can be more important than the safety and protection of the children of America?" he asked.
'Children are our life'
Nancy was at the ranch when Texas rangers and other authorities began taking away the children. She said they knocked on the door of her home, walked in, separated the children, began interviewing "and didn't give us an explanation of what they were doing," she said.
She and other mothers declined to answer the officers' questions about which child belonged to who. "They told us we're going to take the children unless you tell us who are their mothers. But we still weren't saying anything," she recalled. Then she heard them call for backup.
Nancy, who was holding a baby in her arms, said one officer "poked their face into our face" and loudly said, "Give me that baby!"
"I said, 'I'm not going to do that,'" she said.
Although child welfare workers allowed most of the mothers to accompany their children to the temporary shelters, Nancy said she was not allowed to go. She stood helpless in the doorway and watched as her children, grandchildren and family members were loaded onto buses.
"The children would cry and hang onto their mothers," she said, trembling and wiping away tears.
"I get my strength from my Heavenly Father, but I can't believe something like this could even happen in America.... How could they take families and tear the children away? They're mentally abusing those children."
'Nowhere to go'
Monica, a mother of five children between the ages of 11 and 3, said she wants the world to know her children were happy and safe at home.
"We love our children. We love family life. Our children are our life. We do all we can to make sure they are cared for and have an education," she said. "They have manners and are trained well in loving and blessing others."
She was out of state for an appointment when she heard that her home was being raided. She quickly returned to the ranch but wasn't allowed inside. "I had nowhere to go," said Monica, 34.
Her sister is taking care of her 3-year-old at a makeshift shelter in San Angelo, about 50 miles away. A cousin is looking after the others. She tried to join the 139 mothers that were allowed to accompany their children, but the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services won't allow her inside.
"I have driven past the area where they are, and it's completely surrounded by police," she said. "I'm sure I could walk up to the door and get arrested ... and then what's going to happen to my children?"
When she was finally allowed to return to her home on the ranch, because of an ongoing search of the property by authorities, she said nothing was the same.
"Can you imagine what it's like to come back to nothing? Empty, ransacked homes, many things were taken, no pictures left."
She was able to find some pictures of when her children were younger, but all others were confiscated.
"I want the world to know that there is a nothing stronger than love and there is an inborn, God-given love between a mother and her children, and all a mother wants for her children is the very best" Monica said.
Despite her sorrow and frustration, she says she has faith that she will see her children again.
"I know I can't give up. I have to stay at it," she said. "I know with Heavenly Father's help I will be able to get them back."
'I couldn't believe it'
Shannon, a mother who was also off the ranch when officers served the search warrants, said she's also tried several times to see her three children but has been refused.
"Every day I've called them. They put me off saying they don't have the authority to let me in and there's no proof the children are mine. I tell them the children know who their mother is, and I know who my children are," she said.
The 30-year-old says she provided child welfare officials with identification and even birth certificates proving she is her children's mother. She says she and other mothers were told those documents could have been fake.
"I couldn't believe it. I wondered if we were in America or Russia," Shannon said. "I kept thinking, 'How can they do that?' They're breaking every rule. They're breaking every law."
Shannon has been told that her youngest child, who is just 2 years old, clings to her caretaker in the shelter. "She's sick right now and needs her mother."
Texas officials say they removed the children because they believe they're being abused or neglected. The raid was authorized by a judge after workers at a family domestic hotline reported receiving calls from a pregnant 16-year-old girl claiming she was being abused and was afraid to leave the ranch.
Shannon insists the children were not in any harmful environment at the ranch and were well-loved and cared for.554 comments on this story
"We are not child abusers. We take very good care of them. These are innocent and sweet children," she said."The only abuse my children have ever had is since they've been taken away."