CBNNews.com - A custody hearing for 416 children seized from a polygamist sect finally turned to whether they were abused, after lawyers raised objections and asked similar questions for hours.
A child welfare worker said some women at the sect's ranch may have had children when they were minors, some as young as 13.
The testimony came late Thursday, the first day of a court hearing to determine whether the children will remain in state custody.
Child welfare officials claim the children were abused or in imminent danger of abuse because the sect encourages girls younger than 18 to marry and have children.
Five Girls under 18 Pregnant
Child welfare investigator Angie Voss testified that at least five girls who are younger than 18 are pregnant or have children.
Voss said some of the women identified as adults with children may be juveniles, or may have had children when they were younger than 18.
Identifying children and parents has been difficult because members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have given different names and ages at various times, Voss said.
The state has asked that DNA be taken from all of the children and their alleged parents to help determine biological connections. The judge has not ruled on that request.
The State Wants Custody
The state wants to retain custody of the children, and likely move them to foster homes while officials continue investigating abuse allegations. The state must provide evidence the children were physically or sexually abused, or are in imminent danger of abuse.
In 11 hours on Thursday, only three witnesses testified, including Voss.
No decisions were made on the fate of any of the kids, and more cross-examination of Voss was likely Friday.
The children, most of whom are being kept in a domed coliseum in San Angelo, range in age from 6 months to 17 years. About 130 are under 4 years old, Voss said.
She said she was concerned about how the children and women followed the orders of the church's prophet, identified as jailed leader Warren Jeffs.
Children Forced to Marry, Lie
"The children reported that if the prophet heard from the Heavenly Father that they were to marry at any age, they were to do that. If the prophet said they were to lie, they were to do that," Voss said.
Jeffs is currently awaiting trial in a Kingman, Ariz., jail on charges related to the promotion of underage marriages. He previously was convicted of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old wed to her cousin in a Utah case.
The sect came to West Texas in 2003, relocating some members from the church's traditional home along the Utah-Arizona state line. Voss said the ranch was considered a special place, the sect's Zion.
Authorities raided the 1,700-acre ranch south of here in Eldorado on April 3 and began removing children while seeking evidence of underage girls being married to adults.
The raid was prompted by a call from someone identifying herself as a 16-year-old girl with the sect. She claimed her husband, a 50-year-old member of the sect, beat and raped her.
The girl has yet to be identified, though Voss said a girl matching her description was seen by other girls in the ranch garden four days before the raid began.
Source: The Associated Press