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Tim Hussin, Deseret News
Texas state Rep. Drew Darby stands in the background as Marleigh Meisner with the state Department of Family and Protective Services addresses the media during a briefing Tuesday concerning the FLDS children being held in San Angelo, Texas

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Texas child protection officials defended the removal of 416 children from the polygamist YFZ Ranch and said they were hopeful a judge on Thursday will continue to keep the children in the state's custody.

"We believe we have a strong case," and that the children will remain in the state's temporary care, said Marleigh Meisner, with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

At a news conference Tuesday at a San Angelo museum, Meisner said she believed that there are children in the state's care that have been victims of physical and sexual abuse and other children who were at risk. The ranch was "not a safe environment for these children."

Meisner outlined a collaborative response by state agencies in dealing with the overwhelming magnitude of caring for such a large number of people. On Monday, the state agency came under fire for the seemingly abrupt separation of hundreds of children from their mothers and other female adult caretakers.

The decision — which came 11 days after the initial raid — came after "a lot of thought," she said. "We really stand by that decision."

Often, Meisner explained, children who remain in the company of an adult during the midst of a child abuse investigation do not feel that they can freely speak.

"We believe children who are victims of abuse and neglect are certainly going to feel safer if there is not a parent there, coaching them ... that is true of any child protection case," she said.

There were 100 children, 4 years old and older, who were sequestered with child protection staff, and one caregiver is assigned to three children. Children under age 4 were allowed to stay with their adult caretakers.

Meisner said that Monday's action resulted in 57 women who were transported to the San Angelo Coliseum, and six women accepted the agency's offer to move into "a safe place," while others requested to returnn to the ranch. Authorities provided that transportation.

"It was a difficult thing to do," she said. "Children like to be with their parents, and parents like to be with their children. There was some sadness as well as some tears."

The children who have been separated have indoor and outdoor play areas, and are being provided three meals a day plus snacks.

"They are happy, they are playing," she said.

Meisner also outlined other agency action, including the transfer of two dozen adolescent boys. They were moved Monday afternoon and placed in temporary foster custody.

To support those assertions, state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, praised state efforts in connection with the FLDS raid and described the situation that led to the raid as "a great human tragedy. ... As a human being, none of us like human misery, nor do we like the abuse of children. We have a saying here: 'Don't mess with Texas.' I'm going to change it up and say, 'Don't mess with the children of Texas."'

Also speaking at the news conference was Dr. Adolfo Valadez, assistant commissioner with the state Department of Health, who has been on-site with the children. He has overseen the delivery of medical care for the children, including "strict and stringent infection control policy."

The care, which includes mobile clinics and a variety of nursing staff, is not unlike care delivered during the height of Texas hurricane season. He said that two or three more cases of chicken pox have been detected among the children, bringing the total to 23 so far. At the outset of the raid, officials said that several children were ill with the common childhood disease.

On Tuesday, the doctor said there were no children in isolation, but he did not rule out the possibility of additional chicken pox cases because of its long incubation period.

In other developments, a spokeswoman with the State Bar of Texas said that, so far, 350 attorneys had stepped forward to render their services in the representation of children seized from the YFZ Ranch.

"I'm very pleased with the Texas response," said Kim Davey, bar spokeswoman.

While the majority of the attorneys who have stepped forward have specialized training in family law, Davey said, others came from various unrelated disciplines. Those attorneys have received a quick tutorial to help them in their duties.

"They understand what they need to know to serve as an attorney ad litem," Davey said.

The attorneys are in a wait-and-watch mode until the outcome of a Thursday hearing, which Davey described as something that's going to be "phenomenal. ... Of course, each child constitutionally is entitled to have an attorney."

She added that the unusual aspects of this case — 416 children are in state custody — represent a challenge for Texas lawyers, but one she thought they would be able to handle.

The Texas Bar Association has 80,000 members.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com