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Tim Hussin, Deseret News

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, spokeswoman with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

Meisner said foster homes have already been lined up should the children remain in custody.

At a news conference Tuesday at a San Angelo museum, Meisner said that she believed there are FLDS children in the state's care who 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 was joined by two legislative officials who pledged the state's full support, including monetarily, for the inevitable fallout of such a large-scale operation in which children could be under the umbrella of foster care indefinitely.

"As a human being, none of us like human misery, nor do we like the abuse of children," said Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo. "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.'"

Darby called the FLDS situation a "great human tragedy" but praised the outpouring of support and cooperation Texas agencies have received.

"It's a difficult time. There are no answers for these issues, only managed solutions."

On Monday, Texas authorities 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," Meisner 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.

While it is ideal that families should remain together, Meisner stressed it isn't always possible, given the allegations of abuse and the agency's attempt to ferret out the details.

Attorneys met with the children on Tuesday, she said.

The state has sequestered 100 children, 4 years old and older, with child protection staff at the Wells Fargo Pavilion in town. One caregiver is assigned to three children. Children under age 4 were allowed to stay with their adult caretakers.

Meisner said that of the 57 women who were transported to the San Angelo Coliseum, six women accepted the agency's offer to move into "a safe place," while others requested to return to the ranch.

Meisner said Monday's decision did not come easily.

"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, adding children have been allowed to freely worship. "We are certainly very respectful of that."

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.

After the press conference, Meisner rejected some critics' comparison of the state's action to that of Nazis during wartime Germany.

"I respectfully disagree with that," she said. "I feel very good about the job we are doing in Texas. I understand there are going to be those who disagree with us."

Meisner, who started with the agency 16 years ago as a caseworker, said the agency's foremost mission is the protection of children.

"I believe very strongly in what our staff does every day to protect the children of Texas," she said, earlier pointing out that the case — simply boiled down — is about "these children whose cries have gone unheard."

The briefing also included some descriptions by 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 implementing a "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.

He said 100 healthcare workers are on hand to tend to any medical needs, including administering routine physical exams and addressing any urgent care situations. His agency has not been involved in performing any medical examinations to assess the possibility of sexual abuse. That role, he said, would fall under the direction of child protection workers, with Meisner adding that "if we have evidence that warrants a sexual exam we will go forward."

Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said the situation has a multitude of state agencies scrambling to make sure that procedurally, everything goes as smoothly as possible. That includes the Governor's Office of Emergency Management as well as the state Office of Court Administration, which is working to make sure Thursday's shelter hearing to determine the custody status of the children goes well.

The Texas governor is keeping an eye on the situation, too.

Gov. Rick Perry's spokeswoman said he was likely briefed ahead of time that the children removed from the YFZ ranch would be separated from their mothers.

"This is very normal in terms of investigations where there is believed or alleged abuse, that the children are separated from their parents and they are separated from each other," Allison Castle said. "It's certainly typical."

She said Perry has been receiving daily updates on the situation. "The governor has been thoroughly briefed and is aware of all the decisions that are being made, and certainly big decisions like this," Castle said, citing the authorities' need to move the children to bigger quarters and "the need to separate them to ensure the accuracy of their investigation."

As of mid-morning Tuesday, Castle said the Texas governor had not received a letter that the mothers of the children removed from the ranch said they mailed Saturday. The mothers are seeking a meeting with the governor.

Duncan, at the press conference, said while Texas has written the textbook on coordinated community response because of its long experience with hurricanes, there is "no textbook or manual on how to deal with this."

He said it is every state's charge to prevent child abuse and in Texas, "it is a priority."

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.

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