ELDORADO, TEXAS — As officials haggled Friday over how to return more than 400 children to their parents, it was becoming increasingly clear that Texas' audacious attempt to rein in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had backfired -- and become a lesson in the difficulty of cracking down on the 10,000-member polygamist sect.
"If you want to make any change . . . it has to go case by case, one child at a time," said Ellen Marrus, co-director of the Center for Children, Law and Policy at the University of Houston. "It's going to be very slow."
The children, who have been in foster homes scattered around the state, were set to be reunited with their families beginning Monday. But the deal was complicated when a trial judge late Friday refused to approve it unless dozens of parents filed pledges not to leave Texas -- a process that could take several days.
Legal analysts said that reuniting the FLDS families would make it harder to prove any children were abused. "It's very hard to talk to a child about what's going on in a household," Marrus said, "when they're in that household."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, June 03, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Polygamist sect: A Section A article Saturday about a Texas court ruling that ordered that more than 400 children seized from a polygamist sect be returned to their parents said one of the group's critics, Flora Jessop, fled a polygamous marriage as a teen. Jessop fled a forced marriage to an older cousin, who had no other wives.
Authorities raided the FLDS compound in April after receiving an anonymous phone call. Although they did not find the caller, who said she was a minor being sexually abused on the compound -- the call appears to have been a hoax -- officials said they discovered evidence that all of the children there were at risk.
But an appellate court last week found that child-welfare officials had overstepped their authority. The Texas Supreme Court agreed, and on Thursday ordered the children released.
Now, activists -- who long have complained that officials looked the other way while the sect practiced "divinely inspired" underage marriage -- are at a loss.
"Who's going to ever touch [the sect] again?" asked Flora Jessop, on the verge of tears Friday morning. She fled a polygamous marriage as a teen. "For something like this to happen, it kind of makes you wonder why you fight for stuff in this country."
State officials said they would seek to remove FLDS children from their parents' custody on an individual basis, as well as pursue possible cases of abuse.
"The child custody issues and other court proceedings do not impact the ongoing criminal investigation," said Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the Texas attorney general's office. "The evidence collected from the polygamist compound and reviewed by investigators will dictate the direction of this investigation."
And Arizona authorities on Friday issued a warrant to collect DNA from the sect's spiritual leader, Warren Jeffs, who is being held for trial there on sexual-abuse charges. Jeffs is believed to have fathered a child with a 12-year-old girl at the ranch, according to an affidavit. He was convicted last year in Utah of forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her adult cousin, and received a sentence of up to life in prison.
The Texas raid was not the first time that the government had moved against the sect and been disappointed by the results.
In 1953, Arizona authorities arrested the sect in its entirety -- then about 400 people -- in the hamlet of Short Creek on the Utah state line. They put the 236 children into foster care. Images of sobbing mothers sparked a backlash that contributed to the then-governor's loss in the next election.
Scarred by memories of that raid, officials in Utah and Arizona have preferred to prosecute individual abuse cases against FLDS members in their states.
On Friday, they warned that history may repeat itself.
"For 50 years, [the sect] used the Short Creek raid as reason to keep their people secretive and isolated," Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff said in an interview. "We said that was not going to happen again. Well, it has happened again."
FLDS leaders, Shurtleff said, will probably cite the Texas raid "as a reason why they should not trust the government, and instead go to their [religious] leaders first" with complaints of sexual abuse.
The sect -- which broke away from the mainstream Mormon Church long ago -- built its Yearning for Zion Ranch four years ago just outside Eldorado, a dusty western Texas hamlet. Its members attracted attention from locals, who were unnerved by the sight of FLDS women in full-length prairie dresses coming and going at the walled compound.
Many here cheered the raids, but on Friday residents were fuming. "I absolutely don't agree with what they do," Curtis Phillips, 33, said of the FLDS as he worked the register at the town's feed and mercantile store. "But blowing in that ranch like cowboys and taking all those kids -- that was just stupid. That's why people like me don't trust the government."
Curtis Griffin, 45, owner of the local fuel depot, counts many FLDS members as customers. He blamed Sheriff David Doran, who is up for reelection, for mischaracterizing the entire sect as pedophiles.