Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News
Seen from the air, Texas law enforcement gathers outside the FLDS temple in Eldorado. More than 700 state workers from throughout Texas have been called to assist with the children.

The scale of the decision by Texas child welfare workers to take 416 children into state custody dwarfs any endangerment response in Utah — or anywhere else for that matter.

Removing 416 children from their homes would be an overwhelming task for any state, local public and private child welfare workers said Tuesday.

Texas is literally warehousing the kids taken from the compound, although many had been placed with relatives in nearby towns.

One element in that case that may cushion the trauma for the children involved is their mothers are with them.

Texas Child Protective Services authorities have said they want to keep the mothers and children together as long as the mothers are willing to stay with the children.

This particular group of FLDS "operates in a sense as one, huge extended family," Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, told the Deseret Morning News Tuesday evening. "A case can be made that taking away all the children is like taking away all of the siblings in a family where several children allegedly were raped and beaten.

"On the other hand, the facts don't always turn out to be as CPS alleges," he noted.

Wexler, who keeps close tabs on child welfare agencies nationwide — including Texas and Utah — said Texas is particularly unprepared to take so many children at once.

"For several years, (Texas) has been going through a foster-care panic, with huge surge in removals in the wake of deaths of children "known to the system,"' he said.

Whether or not these children needed to be removed, their suffering has been increased because Texas has taken so many other children there is little room for these children in the system," he said. "And that is a lesson every state should remember."

An option like that or an all-out call for help is really the only option at that scale, local child safety advocates believe. They said while the welfare of the children in the case is clearly the top priority, they privately said they wonder if the move might be a kind of pre-emptive "better safe than sorry" strategy.

"I certainly agree that the way children — particularly young women and girls — are treated is de facto abuse or worse," one state Division of Child and Family Services caseworker said. "But from what I've seen these kids are in no way neglected; not nearly to the degree of some of kids we meet here and around Salt Lake."

Utah has 2,600 children in custody/foster care on any given day. The number of kids taken from the compound in Texas amounts to just under a sixth of that total but is about half the number kids removed from Utah homes in a year.

Utah's Division of Child and Family Services officials, which have been asked for and are supplying Texas officials with background information and the cultural context of the polygamous families living there, is required to follow an intricate set of specific guidelines in any case.

"We cannot speculate as to what we would in this or any case because each one is different and each has to be assessed," said DCFS spokeswoman Elizabeth Sollis. "Removal of a child from the child's home affects protected, constitutional rights of the parent and has a dramatic, long-term impact."

In Utah, 55 percent of children entering foster care leave within 12 months, and 41 percent are reunified with their parents. Last year, 13 percent of children leaving foster care were placed with relatives.

As Texas authorities have said, the first priority in any abuse case, "is the safety of the children, and we always strive to keep families intact whenever possible," Sollis said.

"To remove a child from a home you have to show abuse or neglect," said Salt Lake City attorney Lauren Barros, who added if authorities had found evidence of unlawful underage marriages, that could also be used as probable cause.

Utah guardian ad litem, Evan Nebeker, said there is typically three ways state welfare officials can remove a child from a home.

In the utmost urgent cases, Nebeker said authorities can seek an immediate warrant showing "exigent circumstances" or some immediate danger to a child. Typically this type of warrant is sought in connection to the arrest of a parent in which the child is left behind unattended.

The most common method is to seek a search warrant where the state shows "probable cause" that a child's health and safety is in danger and that notification to the parent of such action could pose further danger to a child.

In other less urgent cases, the state can petition a court for removal where a parent has advance notice to appear before a juvenile judge and plead his or her case.

Nebeker said in Utah, a hearing is required within 72 hours of a child's removal from the home. Texas welfare officials have said that used to be the case but Texas law now requires a hearing within 14 days.

At the time of the hearing, the state must show its reasons for the warrant and a judge must determine if continued custody of the child by the state is needed. Nebeker said the state must show "clear and convincing evidence" of abuse, which is an easier standard to prove than "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is typically used in criminal cases.

At the hearing a guardian ad litem attorney is appointed for the child. Nebeker said a guardian ad litem's role is dual. The attorney must listen to the child's desires but also must give an opinion to the court on what he or she believes is in the best interest of that child.

When children are taken they can be placed in a shelter home or a foster home. A shelter home is typically a home for temporary stays and where adults have no intention of adopting.

Foster homes are geared toward more extended stays to give the child's parents time to make improvements. Unlike shelter homes, foster homes can mean that foster parents may be able to adopt the child if the parents are not able to care for him or her, Nebeker said.

Utah Foster Care Foundation, which finds, trains and supports families who care for Utah's foster children, said the most important attribute foster parents in Texas can have is a calm, tolerant attitude with the children they are taking in.

They may have different beliefs and appearance, but being kind and loving to the children involved is most important right now, said Debra Lindner, community relations manager.

E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com; gfattah@desnews.com