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Thorny issues in prosecuting polygamist sect

One question is whether Texas will retain custody of 416 children. Experts say criminal charges are likely, too.

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In addition to the civil action of taking custody of the minors, the state is likely to press criminal charges in this case, says Ellen Marrus, codirector of the Center for Children at the University of Houston's Law Center. "When there are so many children, so many [alleged] atrocities involved, the state is likely to bring criminal charges against the individuals causing harm," she says.

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The mass removal was triggered by phone calls on March 29 and 30 from a 16-year-old girl named Sarah to a local shelter, according to court papers. She said she was seeking help for her and her 8-month-old child to escape the Texas ranch. According to court documents, Sarah said that her parents brought her to the ranch three years ago and that about two years later she was "spiritually married to an adult male member of the church," becoming his seventh wife. Sarah went on to say that her husband had physically and sexually abused her.

The DFPS subsequently obtained a court order to investigate, and on April 3 through 7 carried out a broad search and removed the children.

Court documents show that while investigators searched the ranch for Sarah, they found girls under 16 who were either pregnant or already mothers, including a 16-year-old who had four children. The documents allege a widespread practice of church elders arranging so-called spiritual marriages of girls once they reached puberty. Spiritual marriages are not legal unions in Texas.

Attorneys for the FLDS have so far filed a motion to keep some documents seized at the compound private, asserting that divulging their contents would "violate the clergy-penitent and attorney-client privileges and infringe upon the first amendment rights of the church and its members." But the judge declined to grant the request.

Calls to Gerald Goldstein and Cynthia Orr, FLDS attorneys, were not returned.

"The primary struggle is not so much a struggle with the church but with the church members whose children have been removed," says Paul Bennett, director of the child advocacy clinic at the University of Arizona's College of Law in Tucson.

An arrest warrant has already been issued for the husband of 16-year-old Sarah. He is reportedly in Arizona, where more members of the FLDS reside on the border with Utah.

Arizona officials revealed last week that they'd received a call from a 16-year-old in Colorado City, Ariz., within a week of Sarah's call to Texas authorities. Arizona officials say they went to a Colorado City home but were unable to verify any details of the phone call.

The states of Arizona and Utah have prosecuted several FLDS members in recent years, most prominently Warren Jeffs, the sect's leader. He is serving two consecutive sentences of five years to life in Utah for serving as accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old and he now awaits trial in Arizona on similar charges

[Editor's note: The original version's subhead misstated the number of children in custody.]

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