SAN ANGELO, Texas Texas authorities executed a carefully orchestrated plan to force dozens of Fundamentalist LDS Church mothers into leaving their children behind in state care, said women who spoke to reporters at the YFZ Ranch Monday night.
"They said they were going to bring us together so we could see each other, and they lied," said Marie, a 32-year-old mother of three children, ages 9, 7 and 5, who were separated from her earlier that day.
"They read a court order and said, 'Your children are ours.'"
Marie sobbed as she wrapped her arms around a heavy log pole on the porch of a home on the ranch, squeezing it as if it were her missing child.
"I tried so hard to protect my children. They don't know that people hurt each other. They've been so protected and loved," she said as tears streamed down her face.
Women of all ages and children staying at two shelters were bused midafternoon on Monday to the San Angelo Coliseum. The move came after the Deseret News quoted mothers staying at the shelter who said their children were getting sick and wanted to go home. The newspaper also published photos taken from cell phones that showed the cramped and crowded conditions of the shelters.
On Monday, three mothers from the ranch petitioned Gov. Rick Perry to inspect the shelters to see firsthand how families were being treated.
Once the women and children were at the coliseum, state child protective services workers broke the women into two groups, putting mothers with children younger than 5 years old into one group, with the rest of the mothers or those without children there in another group.
"They told the children that the mothers were needed in another room, that we were going to get some information," Marie said. "The children didn't want us to go. They wanted to be with us."
As soon as the mothers were inside the room and the door was closed, police officers and child welfare workers entered, surrounding the women while a court order was read to the group.
According to the women, the court order said, "You are to leave this building. Your children are with us. You have a choice. You can go to a women's violence shelter or go home to the ranch."
"I asked if I could go say goodbye," said Marie of her little boy. "I told him I would come back, but they wouldn't let me."
Marissa Gonzales, a spokeswoman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, said the move was a typical procedure taken by the agency.
"It is not the normal practice to allow parents to accompany the child when an abuse allegation is made," Gonzales said.
In an unprecedented display of public emotion and openness, the women spoke in small groups or individually with reporters, who took pictures and video. FLDS men, both young and old, watched the event unfold, listening as the women described how their children were taken from them.
Phyllis, a grandmother of some of the children, said she was horrified at what was happening. None of the women were allowed to ask questions when the authorities told them they were being separated to receive some "important information."
"I could never have dreamed this," she said, adding she has a daughter with a 2-month-old child now at the coliseum.
Another woman, 21-year-old Vilate, said she had a sick feeling that the authorities would "do something" when they began to load them into the buses.
"Everyone was telling us we'd all be together today. How could somebody do that?" she asked. "Who is going to be holding the little 3-year-old boy I was caring for? They would just tell you one thing and then do another."
Many of the women spoke of meeting a few people over the past 10 days who were kind to those being held by the state.
"But it seemed like as soon as we found someone we liked and who we could talk to, someone who was kind and sympathetic, they reassigned that person," said Vilate, whose dark eyes clouded as she spoke. "We need help so bad."
Esther, 32, said she tried to stay with her children even as the authorities told her if she didn't leave she would be arrested.
"They told the children, 'Come, come play with us,' and the children said, 'No, I want to go with mother,"' said Esther, who has two girls, 6 and 8, now in state custody. "The children are all crying now. I told my daughter earlier, when they were putting us in different rooms, to be brave and to keep praying."
Nancy said authorities have told her 22-year-old daughter that she can't possibly be that old, that she is lying.
"We are American citizens. We are legal, law-abiding and a peaceful people. We have tried to cooperate the best we could, and we were promised we would get our children back," she said. "We have literally been terrorized."
Another mother, Monica, said Texas authorities pursued the children after receiving an unsubstantiated allegation that an underage mother was pregnant and trying to escape the YFZ Ranch. The girl has not been found.
"Now they are trying to get another girl to confess that she is the girl they are looking for. That girl doesn't exist," said Monica, who earlier was barred from seeing her children because she wasn't at the ranch the day the state raided it.
"Anyone with a mother knows how we're feeling right now. What would they do if they were in our place? If we had known this was ahead of us, we couldn't have lived another day."
Texas officials removed 416 children from the YFZ Ranch belonging to the FLDS Church last week as part of a sweeping investigation into allegations of sexual and physical abuse.
Contributing:The Associated Press
» Video: Richard shares his story
» Video: Monica shares her story
Deseret News coverage:Cell phones are confiscated