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Mike Terry, Deseret News
Susan Hays, guardian ad litem, speaks to media about the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, Saturday.

ELDORADO, Texas — Children taken from the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch could he placed in foster homes in a matter of days.

"To make this transition as smooth as possible, we're going to try to keep these children in groups," Shari Pulliam of the Texas Department of Family Services said Saturday. "We're going to keep the teenage girls and their children together, the siblings together as much as possible."

Child welfare workers said they would also make an effort to be culturally sensitive to the 416 children who come from a fundamentalist background and will end up in foster homes here in the Bible Belt.

"That's why we're going to place in groups, where they'll worship as they're used to," Pulliam said. "We're working to not put them in places that will expose them to mainstream culture too quickly. We're treading lightly and with caution in our placements."

It still won't be home, said attorneys appointed to represent the children in what is turning into the nation's biggest-ever custody battle.

As some attorneys met with their clients being housed in the San Angelo Coliseum on Saturday, other guardians ad litem toured the sprawling YFZ Ranch as the sun baked down on the west Texas prairie.

"We're just having time with our attorneys," an FLDS man told reporters gathered outside the ranch gates. "The attorneys are requesting some private time with their clients."

Susan Hays, a Dallas attorney acting as a guardian ad litem for a little girl taken from the YFZ Ranch, left the ranch impressed.

"These people can build houses. It's an amazing facility, amazing construction," she said Saturday. "These aren't poor kids living in trailers. They're huge buildings, very clean and, frankly, they're a lot better conditions than the children are living in right now inside the coliseum."

Some of the children taken from the YFZ Ranch are being housed in nearby San Angelo, where they are sleeping on cots in what some of the FLDS have said are very cramped conditions. Attorneys have complained that they have had to conduct interviews with their clients in horse barns.

Patricia Deveau, a San Antonio attorney representing a 9-year-old boy, said the YFZ Ranch was a beautiful, self-sustaining community.

"I wanted to meet my child's father and see where he's been living so I can complete my own investigation," she said. "I was impressed with how self-sustaining this community is. I had no idea. It was an education for me."

Hays said it was sad to walk through a huge home that was completely empty.

Earlier this month, 416 children were taken from the YFZ Ranch after Texas child welfare workers said a 16-year-old girl called a domestic violence hotline and said she was pregnant and in an abusive marriage to an older man.

When Texas officials went to investigate, they said they found evidence of other abuse, and a judge ordered the removal of all the children. On Friday, the judge ordered all of the children to remain in state custody.

Hearings will begin soon, even before the next scheduled hearing on June 5, to determine what is in the best interest of the children and whether they should be reunited with their parents.

"When you see a small child that's living on a cot instead of in their home, that's sad," Hays said. "It's frustrating and sad for individual lawyers when they have not seen any evidence of abuse in that child's home. The state seems to be making this argument that the whole thing's a big house. It's a 1,700-acre ranch with multiple buildings, large homes."

In many respects, the problems facing the FLDS people on the YFZ Ranch have been exacerbated by a community that is very secretive, especially in matters of family relationships, and child protective services workers who get suspicious when people don't want to answer questions.

Hays said she has seen no general conditions on the ranch that would make any guardian ad litem reluctant to push for returning their child home. But given the nature of the allegations of child-bride marriages and other abuse, she conceded that a culture shift may need to be made.

"If there were never any teenagers being spiritual wives, there would never have been a problem," she said.

Deveau said everyone involved in the case needs to educate themselves on the FLDS and their way of life.

"I'm going to try and educate myself as much as I can," she said. "This was part of it for me."

In court on Friday, some FLDS women testified that they would not condone underage girls marrying older men. They also said they would be willing to agree to some form of separation from the ranch or their husbands, if it meant being reunited with their children.

"Mothers will do a lot to be with their children," Hays said.

DNA samples to help establish paternity and family relationships will be gathered Monday at the San Angelo Coliseum for the children. On Tuesday, parents are expected to show up at the Schleicher County Courthouse square for a cheek swab. Police took some DNA swabs in the early stages of the raid on the YFZ Ranch.

"Once we complete that process, then we'll begin the placement of the children," said Pulliam.

E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com