SAN ANGELO, Texas (CNN) -- A custody hearing scheduled to begin Thursday morning will decide the fate of more than 400 children taken from a polygamist sect's ranch in central Texas amid allegations of abuse.
Two weeks after pulling all children from the YFZ (Yearning for Zion) Ranch, outside nearby Eldorado, the state must tell Judge Barbara Walther why it felt the move was necessary.
Because of the sheer size of the case -- 416 children represented by 350 volunteer attorneys and lawyers for the parents -- the hearing will be staged at multiple locations around town, hooked up by closed-circuit television and funneled into the Tom Green County courthouse.
The YFZ ranch is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a Mormon offshoot that practices polygamy. Followers say the accusations of sexual abuse are false.
"This, what is happening to them, is the worst abuse that they have ever had," said Esther, one of three FLDS mothers interviewed by CNN's Larry King on Wednesday night. "I just don't understand why you would want to just come right into our community and do this."
The often-tearful mothers pleaded to be granted access to their children.
"Our children need us," said one of the women, only identified as Sally, "and they have been torn from us illegally with officers with guns . Watch women plead for their children »
"Some of our children we have not been able to have contact with for 10 days to almost two weeks."
Although they appeared on camera, the women only used their first names, because they worry about the effect that revealing their last names might have on their children in state custody.
State officials took the children into temporary legal custody after a 16-year-old girl made a series of phone calls to authorities in late March, claiming she had been beaten and forced to become a "spiritual" wife to an adult man.
Acting on her calls, authorities raided the ranch in Eldorado, about 40 miles south of San Angelo, on April 4. Two men were arrested for obstructing the raid, and it remained unclear whether the 16-year-old who made the initial call has been located by authorities.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Thursday morning defended the raid, saying the allegations of sexual abuse on underage girls left authorities no choice.
Responding to claims the raid was heavy-handed, Abbott said authorities conducted the raid the way they did because they were walking on to a compound and wanted to "avoid another Waco, [David] Koresh-type situation."
Abbott was referring to the controversial 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound that killed 74 people, many of them children.
"In hindsight, we believe the removal of the children was done as safely and effectively as it could've been done," Abbott said of the Eldorado raid.
Rod Parker, an attorney acting as a spokesman for FLDS families, said authorities acted on information not supported by evidence.
"They have an unsubstantiated allegation of abuse," Parker said in an interview on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 Wednesday night. "And, in response to this unsubstantiated, uncorroborated allegation, they removed not just the children from one home, but every child in the community ..."
The children range in age from infants to teenagers, including teenage mothers.
"I think that the state should have corroborated ... the phone call, to see if it was real," Parker said. "The people on the ranch tell me there is no person named Sarah Jessop Barlow, who allegedly made the phone call."
Texas Rangers have questioned Dale Evans Barlow, 50, the man who was accused by the teen of abusing her, but he was released Saturday. His attorney, Bruce Griffen, said the meeting was voluntary.
Griffen said he and Barlow are working to gather evidence that his client could not have been in Texas when the crimes allegedly happened.
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 Mormon church, which gave up plural marriage more than a century ago, has no ties to Jeffs' group. E-mail to a friend
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