SAN ANGELO, Texas Buses rolled out of the San Angelo Coliseum, separating mothers from children who have been sheltered here since they were taken in a raid on the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch.
During a Thursday afternoon news conference, Texas Child Protective Service officials said 63 children and 64 women were removed from the coliseum during the day. Of those women, 17 were placed in shelters with their babies. Seven women returned to the YFZ ranch and 40 others were taken to other locations, including a shelter. The state also considers some of the women to actually be girls and they were placed in foster care. That led officials to bump the number of children in Texas custody to 462 because they believe another 25 mothers from the compound are under 18.
The remaining 260 children at the coliseum are expected to be removed shortly.
DPS officials described the separations as very emotional, but denied claims that they were cruel in their taking custody of the children.
"We are not about trying to give people ultimatums," said Darrell Azar, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
DPS officials again defended their removing the children from the YFZ ranch, saying they "found a widespread pattern of young girls being married off to older men."
As the children and mothers were moving, the legal case is also progressing. The Texas 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Austin agreed to hear a series of motions next Tuesday, according to Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. The motions are filed by attorneys representing 45 FLDS mothers seeking to stop the separation from their children.
Activity at the coliseum started as the sun rose Thursday morning, when it was locked down and dozens of lawmen massed outside the cattle arena. Attorneys for the children have been turned away at the gate.
"Are attorneys not allowed to see their clients?" a guardian ad litem shouted to a Texas state trooper blocking a gate.
"No," the officer said authoritatively.
Some attorneys are angry that they have not been allowed to meet with their clients. Stephanie Goodman, a San Angelo attorney representing several FLDS mothers, said she got a panicked phone call today from someone at the YFZ Ranch saying that the women at the shelter were asked to make a choice before they boarded buses: they could go home to the YFZ Ranch or they could get on a bus to a San Antonio shelter. If they chose to go home to the ranch, the women were reportedly told they would never see their children again.
"A whole bunch of Constitutional rights are being violated," Goodman said. She attempted to get into the coliseum to meet with her clients, but was turned away.
"I don't know any other (Child Protective Services) client that has been treated this way," she said. "It's kind of troubling."
Other attorneys for the children were equally outraged.
"I'm going to the courthouse," said Emmet Fleming, an attorney representing a little girl whom he said had medical issues.
CPS officials denied the allegations.
"That's not something we have the authority to say," said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Dept. of Family and Protective Services. "It's a judge making decisions about where they go."
Van Deusen said the plans are to place more children into foster care facilities today.
Those children began leaving the coliseum early this morning. As one bus left, a group of FLDS mothers threw open the dark-tinted windows of the chartered bus and shouted "help." One held out a tiny cardboard sign that said, "SOS mothers separated Help."
Later in the morning, about 11:30 local time, three more buses left the coliseum grounds. One appeared to have children in it, alongside women one of which waved at reporters as the bus drove past them.
A caravan of dozens of cars with shelter workers also left earlier in the morning.
A judge on Wednesday said she will not separate 18 adult mothers from their babies, opting instead to place them together in a local family shelter.
"The court would prefer these children not be separated from their mothers," said Judge Barbara Walther.
The judge's decision affects infants under 12 months old. Mothers whose children are older than 12 months will likely be placed in an emergency shelter nearby, so they can still see them and provide breast milk.
Some adult mothers will still be separated from their children those with children over 2 years old.
Lawyers for Texas Child Protective Services updated the judge on their efforts to place the 437 children taken by the state into the foster care system. Approximately 111 children were bused to foster care facilities across Texas on Tuesday.
"All arrived safely at their destinations, are making adjustments and doing well so far," said Gary Banks, a lawyer for CPS.
Dozens of lawyers packed into Walther's tiny courtroom, some sitting on the floor just so they could listen in. A few FLDS members were also there.
One woman sat outside the courtroom on a bench, talking to an attorney. She appeared visibly upset.
"Do unto others as you'd like done unto yourself," an upset Willie Jessop told reporters as he walked out of the courthouse. "If this is how you'd like your children to be treated and the system you'd like them to be put in for justice, I guess this is a great day."
The judge moved quickly over a myriad of topics, including the children's access to attorneys, schooling and unique issues related to the FLDS Church.
Banks said most of the foster care facilities have on-site schools. Educational and psychological assessments will be done on the children.
"They might, down the road, be integrated into the school system. That's not our plan right now because of a little bit of culture shock," he said.
The judge said she wanted to ensure the children are able to practice their religion, which CPS said it is trying to accommodate. Walther said she also wanted to ensure the children have access to clothing unique to the FLDS faith. Girls and women are seen wearing the long prairie-style dresses, boys wear long-sleeved shirts and pants.
"We think it's something that needs to happen because it's a big part of who they are," Banks said.
Visitation between the children and their parents was still being worked out, and child welfare workers said they were receiving forms about placements with other family members.
"The court wants to be very cautious in placements outside the state of Texas," Walther said.
The children were removed from the YFZ Ranch earlier this month when someone claiming to be a 16-year-old girl called a family crisis shelter saying she was abused, pregnant and married to a 50-year-old man. When authorities went to investigate, they didn't find the girl but say they found signs of child abuse at the ranch including pregnant teenage girls.
That prompted the judge to order all 437 children removed from the FLDS ranch and her ruling keeping them in state custody.
Attorneys for some of the parents and the children have been fighting to stop the separation of mothers and children and siblings when they are placed in foster care.
"To be sent somewhere without your brothers and sisters, that's just going to be devastating to these children and I'm begging CPS to please be sure they keep these children together with their siblings," said Mary Golder, a San Angelo attorney representing five children in state custody.
The judge's order attempts to keep siblings together and teenage mothers with their children, but some lawyers claim that is not happening.
Hundreds of attorneys have volunteered to serve as court-appointed representatives for the children, but many lawyers have complained they have no notice when hearings were to be held.
The judge said she is trying to transition from the massive case into individual children's cases, to move forward with the child custody issues. To do that, she's wading through a 5-foot stack of legal papers.
"I can't sign orders because I'm having to review all the papers good lawyers file," Walther told the crowd of attorneys in court.
Authorities finished collecting DNA samples from all the children and charter buses have been summoned to move the children out of the coliseum. Later this week, 27 boys being sheltered at a ranch in Amarillo will give DNA samples.
The samples are being required to establish paternity and biological relationships. CPS workers have said they are not getting true names, birth dates or relationships from many of the children or adults in this massive child custody case.
A spokesman for the FLDS Church told the Deseret News he fears that authorities are using the DNA to build criminal cases against members.
The children's parents are again returning to the Schleicher County Memorial Building to undergo a cheek swab, be photographed and assigned a number. Not many showed up on Tuesday. Texas attorney general spokeswoman Janece Rolfe said those who don't show up could face possible fines or jail time.