SAN ANGELO, Texas The children of the Fundamentalist LDS Church peered out the tinted glass windows of the chartered buses, some jumping up excitedly in their seats and waving to the people outside.
But they were not going home to the "Yearning for Zion" Ranch.
On Tuesday, as many as 100 children were moved from the San Angelo Coliseum, which has served as a makeshift shelter for 437 children taken in the raid on the FLDS compound near here earlier this month. Child welfare workers were acting on an order from a judge, who gave the approval to begin placing them in foster care facilities scattered across Texas.
"They'll temporarily be there while we sort this out," said Darrell Azar, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Judge Barbara Walther's order dictates that teenage mothers will be placed with their babies, alongside other teenage girls who are pregnant. Children under 12 months old will be placed in foster homes with siblings who are under 5 years old. Boys 8 years and older will be at the Cal Farley's Boys Ranch in Amarillo, where other FLDS boys have been sheltered."Every attempt will be made to place siblings together," the judge's order states, placing the children in shelters and care centers in Amarillo, Abilene, Waxahachie, Houston, Austin and elsewhere in the state.
About a half-dozen buses left the coliseum Tuesday afternoon, escorted by police cars and ambulances. Some had children in them, some did not.
The coliseum was placed in lockdown, preventing anyone from coming in or going out of the grounds while the transport was taking place. Attorneys representing the children, who were there to meet with their clients, were unable to leave.
Moments after the lockdown was lifted, a Tom Green County sheriff's van drove out of the coliseum parking lot with two FLDS women inside. They appeared visibly upset.
"There were two women who had no biological children here," Azar said Tuesday. "They were transported to a location of their choice."
The women reportedly returned to the YFZ Ranch.
"Every step in this proceeding, the court has acted without regard to the rights or wishes of the people whose lives are affected here," said Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who is acting as a spokesman for the polygamous sect.
At least two requests for a restraining order were filed in a San Angelo court, seeking to stop the removal of the children and the separation from their mothers. Those motions are in the judge's files, but she has not heard them.
"That's all we were asking for, is to keep everything the same until we could find out what was going on," said Julie Balovich of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, who represents a group of FLDS mothers and filed the court motions. "We could speak up for the children and the parents. Some of our clients' children are being split up, and we're pretty outraged."
Balovich said one of her clients has five children and three of those children are going to different homes."My clients are absolutely distraught," she told the Deseret News.
Acting on a call to a family crisis shelter in San Angelo, authorities went out to the FLDS Church's YFZ Ranch earlier this month to investigate claims that a 16-year-old girl named "Sarah" was pregnant and in an abusive marriage to a 50-year-old man.
Authorities have not found the girl but said that once they arrived on the YFZ Ranch, they observed other signs of children being abused. That led to an order from the judge, removing all of the children from the compound.
"It's obvious, if you look at the record, there have been some underage marriages," Parker told reporters on Tuesday. He said marriages at the YFZ Ranch were not arranged by priesthood holders but rather were the decision of the girl and her family.
Parker cited a recent change in Texas law that once allowed girls to marry at age 14.
"It was a change in the law directed specifically at the FLDS people," he said.
Child welfare workers have said they would be placing children in foster care once they finished taking DNA samples from them to help prove their identities. Their parents are giving similar samples to help establish maternity and paternity.
The DNA sampling will continue today, but child protective services refused to say if more children would be leaving the coliseum for foster homes. With some of the children already in facilities across the state, Azar said child protective services will begin creating individualized plans for each child.
"We'll start to assess what their educational needs are, what level of mental and physical health care they'll need, counseling, set up a curriculum for their education," he said. "We'll set up a plan for each one."
Parker said attorneys in Texas are considering a number of options, including moving the cases from Tom Green County to Dallas, where a number of judges with family law backgrounds had volunteered to handle the cases.
As the child custody process goes forward, individual plans could include visitation from their parents, but Azar said that's "not a bridge we've crossed yet." On Tuesday, Azar said the other children in the coliseum appeared to be doing well, despite having stayed in a makeshift shelter for so long."We're trying to get these children into a more normal setting as quickly as possible so they can be provided what they need to flourish and we can continue investigating what happened in their lives," he said.
Contributing: Aaron Falk
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