ELDORADO, Texas — More than 400 children removed by investigators from a West Texas polygamist compound are now in state legal custody in an unprecedented child welfare case that grows more complex by the day.
The children face an uncertain fate, experts say, including months of legal wrangling and the increasing possibility that most won't be returned to the remote religious ranch. A judge has scheduled a hearing for April 17.
Meanwhile, state officials must now care for and find foster families for children who have led a mostly monastic life, one where pop culture is an anathema and the outside world is an evil.
"They're going to need a lot of people that understand their culture and history," said Sam Brower, a Utah private investigator who has made several visits to the 1,700-acre Eldorado, Texas, compound, run by followers of jailed polygamist Warren Jeffs. "They're trying to communicate with people that have lived out their lives in a cave, basically."
As of Monday, 401 children — from infants to teenage mothers — had been bused from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints compound to San Angelo, Texas. They are being housed inside an old Army fort that is now a museum, accompanied by 133 women who came voluntarily and aren't bound to stay, state officials said.
Authorities say they've found most of the children at the compound, but the search continues.
"In my opinion, this is the largest endeavor we've ever been involved with in the state of Texas," said Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner. "This is not about numbers. This is about children who are at imminent risk of harm, children we believe have been abused or neglected."
In court filings released Monday, representatives of the religious sect lashed out at the raid, calling it unconstitutional and an "irreparable" desecration of their way of life. In a filing asking the judge for a restraining order, they compared the state's actions to "authorities rummaging through the Vatican." A hearing has been set for Wednesday.
Still unaccounted for is the 16-year-old girl who sparked the investigation with a phone call saying she had given birth to her 50-year-old husband's child — though officials said she may well be included in those already removed from the compound.
The alleged husband, Dale Barlow, is not in hiding but living in Arizona with three women and their 22 children and disavows any role in the case, Barlow's probation officer said Monday. The officer, Bill Loader of the Mojave County Probation Department in Arizona, said he is in daily contact with Barlow, a plumber and carpenter who lives in Colorado City, Ariz. Loader said he found Barlow's denials credible.
Texas officials would not confirm whether they've visited with Barlow, who was sentenced to jail last year for conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.