Girls in the West Texas polygamist sect enter into underage marriages without resistance because they are ruthlessly indoctrinated from birth to believe disobedience will lead to their damnation, experts for the state testified Friday at a custody hearing for 416 youngsters.
The renegade Mormon sect's belief system "is abusive. The culture is very authoritarian," said Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist and an authority on children in cults.
But under questioning from defense lawyers who lined up in the courtroom aisles to have a turn at each witness, the state's experts acknowledged that the sect mothers were loving parents and that there were no signs of abuse among younger girls and any of the boys.
The testimony came on Day 2 of an extraordinary mass hearing over an attempt by the state of Texas to strip the parents of custody and place the children in foster homes.
The children were seized earlier this month in a raid on the sect's desert compound — a ranch built around a brilliant white limestone temple — because of evidence of physical and sexual abuse, including the forcing of underage girls into marriage and childbearing.
Texas District Judge Barbara Walther boiled it down this way: "The issue before the court is: Can I give them back?"
Although the attorneys for the children and the parents have not yet presented their cases, they seemed to be trying to show in cross-examination that their children were fine and that the state was trying to tear families apart on the mere possibility that the girls might be abused when they reach puberty several years from now.
Only a few of the children are teenage girls. Roughly a third are younger than 4 and more than two dozen are teenage boys. But about 20 women or more gave birth when they were minors, some as young as 13, authorities say.
The judge controlled the hundreds of lawyers with a steelier hand Friday than she did the day before.
Under cross-examination, state child-welfare investigator Angie Voss conceded there have been no allegations of abuse against babies, prepubescent girls or any boys.
But her agency, Child Protective Services, contends that the teachings of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — to marry shortly after puberty, have as many children as possible, and obey their fathers or their prophet, imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs — amount to abuse.
"This is a population of women who appear to have a problem making a decision on their own," Voss said.
In response, the FLDS women, dressed in long, pioneer dresses with their hair swept up in braids, groaned in chorus with their dark-suited attorneys.
Perry testified that the girls he interviewed said they freely chose to marry young. But he said those choices were based on lessons drilled into them from birth.
"Obedience is a very important element of their belief system," he said. "Compliance is being godly, it's part of their honoring God."
Perry acknowledged that many of the adults at the ranch are loving parents and that the boys seemed emotionally healthy when he played with them. When asked whether the belief system really endangered the older boys or young children, Perry said, "I have lost sleep over that question."
Under questioning, Perry also conceded the children would suffer if placed in traditional foster care.
"If these children are kept in the custody of the state, there would have to be exceptional and innovative programmatic elements for these children and their families," he said. "The traditional foster care system would be destructive for these children."
At that, dozens of FLDS parents applauded.
Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor, said courts have generally held that a parent's belief system cannot, in itself, justify a child's removal. He said, for example, that a parent might teach his child that smoking marijuana is acceptable, but only when he helps the child buy pot does he cross the line.
"The general view of the legal system is until there is an imminent risk of harm or actual harm, you can't" take the children, Volokh said.
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. Investigators have yet to identify her among the children seized.
Jeffs is in prison for being an accomplice to rape. He was convicted in Utah last year of forcing a 14-year-old into marrying an older man.