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Witness: Teens at ranch said any age OK to marry

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  • Investigator testifies pregnant teen girls call each other "sister wives"
  • Children color-coded by age, sex to make custody hearing run smoother
  • Children's lawyers make numerous objections during hearing
  • Texas attorney general: Case won't hinge on girl who called about abuse
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SAN ANGELO, Texas (CNN) -- A child protection supervisor testified Thursday that she encountered several pregnant teen girls at a polygamist ranch who called each other "sister wives" and who believed it was acceptable to be "spiritually united" with a man at any age.

"It was the belief that no age was too young to be married," said Angie Voss, a supervisor for investigation at Texas Child Protective Services.

Thursday's hearing was aimed at determining who gets custody of more than 400 children who were removed from the YFZ (Yearning for Zion) Ranch in an April 4 raid. The hearing took longer than expected because of objections from some of the 350 attorneys representing the children.

Voss said about 130 of the children removed were under the age of 4 and that girls as young as 13 had conceived children at the ranch.

Boys were also removed from the ranch, Voss testified, because "I believe that the boys are groomed to be perpetrators."

"I was concerned," Voss said of her visit to the ranch. "It was a scary and intimidating environment. I was afraid. I saw men all over."

She said she saw men in a guard tower looking down on them as they entered the ranch, and men escorted the women to the schoolhouse for the interviews.

The ranch is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon offshoot that practices polygamy.

The raid was prompted by a series of phone calls in late March from a 16-year-old who officials referred to as Sarah, who said she had been beaten and forced to become the "spiritual" wife to an adult man. FLDS members have denied that the girl, supposedly named Sarah Jessop Barlow, exists.

Upon arriving at the ranch with law enforcement officers the evening before the raid, the men who met them at the gate told them there were no Sarahs there, Voss testified.

However, she said, in interviewing 20 women 17 or younger at the ranch, investigators learned that there were five Sarahs -- and one of them, like the caller, was 16 and had a baby, although her name was not Sarah Jessop Barlow. The women told investigators they did not know where that Sarah was. It remains unclear whether the 16-year-old who made the calls has been located by authorities.

Attorneys for the children objected to Voss' testimony, and Judge Barbara Walther granted a brief recess to see if the attorneys could combine their objections. Video Watch attorneys discuss busy day in court »

The state has the burden of demonstrating to Walther why the removals were necessary.

During cross-examination, the attorneys pressed Voss over whether one of the reasons for removing the children was because of their religion and their following of "the prophet" -- jailed FLDS leader Warren Steed Jeffs.

Voss said officials were concerned over the sect promoting "children having children," but added: "It's not about religion, it's about child abuse."

Because of the sheer size of the case -- 416 children, their attorneys, as well as lawyers for the parents -- the people involved were spread among multiple locations around town, linked by closed-circuit television to the courthouse.

Critics of the sect say it arranges marriages for girls as young as 13 and that competition for brides may be reduced through exiling young men. But FLDS followers deny that abuse occurred at the ranch.

Earlier Thursday, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said on CNN's "American Morning" that "the case really doesn't hinge upon that particular 16-year-old."

He said once investigators could "in good faith ... go into the compound and determine whether or not there was any kind of wrongdoing, the case is on its own after that."

But, he said, "It's our belief that these children who are under the age of 17 have engaged in sex with older men, which is a violation of Texas law, which is also a potential violation of the bigamy laws. So yes, we do believe we have information that will be substantiated in court that will show there has been sexual assault as well as bigamy."

State attorneys requested DNA samples to match children to their parents as well as a psychiatric evaluation of the children, a request that immediately prompted numerous objections.

Walther told attorneys such objections were premature. "It's not going to be perfect, but let's just try to get this started and see how it goes," she said. "This is wasting time."

"It's very chaotic in there. It's very difficult for lawyers to be heard. The judge is doing her best ... but to handle the hearing en masse like this, with this many parties, I think it's really difficult for any family to get a fair hearing," said Rod Parker, a spokesman for FLDS families.

He said the state is trying to "tar all the families with the problems, or the alleged problems, of a few families."

State officials presented records they said show that 10 women were either married or pregnant as minors. The list was found during the raid, locked in a safe at a main ranch office building, the officials said.

Children and their attorneys are being called by groups designated by color, with each color representing a different age and sex of the child. Pink, for instance, represents girls under the age of 4. Each of the groups was given its own lead attorney.

Some attorneys said they were having to use limited information in representing children, particularly young ones. Lawyer Susan Hays, representing a toddler, said she arrived at the hearing without records and had had no access to the child's father.

Another attorney called the procedure a violation of due process for the children.

Because of limited space in the courtroom, several FLDS members were moved to an overflow room to listen to the proceedings. The women arrived at the Tom Green County courthouse mostly in groups, wearing their traditional high-collared, pioneer-style dresses. Video Watch mothers file into courthouse »

Two Houston, Texas, attorneys representing children removed from the Eldorado ranch visited it Thursday afternoon, saying they wanted to see whether it was a clean and safe environment, because the state had alleged it was not.

"It was a very clean place," said attorney Jason Castaneda, who represents a 5-year-old. Members make their own milk and cheese, he said, and the ranch is "almost like a little city."

Attorney Damiane Banieh, who represents a 2-year-old, said she did not see evidence that the children were in an unhealthy environment. She described the men at the ranch as cordial, despite the circumstances.

Of Thursday's hearing, she said, "I found it to be laborious. They were unable to get down to the real issue as to whether or not they had probable cause to go in and get these kids. Attorneys were objecting to everything, and rightfully so."

"There were lots of motions filed," Banieh said. "We didn't have an opportunity, one by one, to look at them and have an opportunity to file written responses. The other thing I had a serious problem with is ... no parents, to my knowledge, received a copy of the original petition for emergency removal.

"You are supposed to know why your children were removed," she said. "And if you don't know why your children were removed, how are you supposed to prepare your lawyer to come in in 14 days and defend you?"

Wednesday night some of the children's mothers appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live," where they made tearful pleas to be granted access to their children. Video Watch women plead for their children »

"This, what is happening to them, is the worst abuse that they have ever had," said Esther, one of three mothers interviewed. "I just don't understand why you would want to just come right into our community and do this."

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FLDS leader Warren Jeffs is serving time in Utah after his 2007 conviction for being an accomplice to rape -- charges related to a marriage he performed in 2001. Jeffs also faces trial in Arizona on eight charges of sexual conduct with a minor, incest and conspiracy.

The mainstream Mormon church, which gave up plural marriage more than a century ago, has no ties to Jeffs' group. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Ismael Estrada, Ed Lavandera, Sean Callebs and Katherine Wojtecki contributed to this report.

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