ELDORADO, Texas (AFP) — Texas state authorities have removed more than 400 children from the secluded, sprawling compound of a polygamist sect, amid allegations of widespread sexual and physical abuse.
The tally could rise as authorities search the 1,700 acre (688 hectare) ranch owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, led by jailed Warren Jeffs, who is considered the sect's prophet.
A judge has ordered every child removed from the ranch because they were deemed at imminent risk of harm.
Some 133 women dressed in ankle-length dresses voluntarily left the compound with the children. Most were mothers.
"I can't speculate on what those women are feeling," said Marleigh Meisner, spokeswoman for Texas Child Protective Services, which is conducting the probe.
More than 200 CPS workers were brought into the small town of Eldorardo, Texas to conduct one-on-one interviews.
"You can imagine this is a whole new world for them and we're trying to be sensitive to that," Meisner told a press conference.
Meisner would not describe what type of abuse allegedly took place on the ranch but said a judge determined there was sufficient evidence to order all 401 children into temporary state custody.
Court hearings will be held in the next two weeks to determine whether the children should be permanently taken from their parents.
"There were allegations of physical abuse, allegations that these children were at risk of harm," she said.
In court filings Monday lawyers for the religious sect asked for a restraining order against the state, called the raid unconstitutional and an "irreparable" desecration of the group's way of life.
The women and children were temporarily housed in an old Army fort that is now a museum in the nearby town of San Angelo, as state resources were stretched to the limit to accommodate the unprecedented case.
The children have lived a life devoid of popular culture, one in which the outside world is considered evil, people familiar with the sect said.
In assigning case workers and potential foster families, "they're going to need a lot of people that understand their culture and history," said Sam Brower, a private investigator who has visited the secluded compound.
"They're trying to communicate with people that have lived out their lives in a cave, basically -- very, very isolated," he said.
One person was arrested and charged with interfering with the "duties of a public servant," the Texas Department of Public Safety said, but no other charges have yet been filed.
State police sealed off the compound and would not allow the men to leave, although they have been conducting their search with care in order to ease tensions.
"We have tried very hard to be sensitive to the folks at the ranch," said DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange.
More than 80 people were killed, including 22 children, in a botched 1993 raid on a religious compound in Waco, Texas.
The operation began Thursday after authorities received a call from a 16-year-old girl who said she had been sexually and physically abused and had given birth to a child fathered by her 50-year-old husband.
Authorities have not yet identified the girl among those bused off the ranch.
Tensions rose on Saturday when church members blocked authorities from searching their temple in an hours-long standoff, but police were eventually allowed in without incident.
The YFZ (Yearn For Zion) ranch, 255 miles (411 kilometers) southwest of Dallas, Texas, is linked to Jeffs, an avowed polygamist who is now behind bars.
Jeffs was arrested near Las Vegas in 2006 and jailed for life for being an accomplice to rape. He also faces federal charges in Arizona and Utah.
The vast Texas ranch was bought by the sect in 2003 and has been kept under surveillance by the authorities. It has about 30 to 35 residential buildings -- some as large as 32,000 square feet (2,973 square meters) -- and another 30 outbuildings.
The mainstream Mormon church -- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- renounced polygamy more than a century ago as a price of Utah's admission to the United States.
It now excommunicates members who engage in the practice and disavows any connection with the FLDS church.
Members of the FLDS church are known to live in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, South Dakota and British Columbia.
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