Texas child welfare attorneys say children were removed from the YFZ Ranch and should not return there because its residents live as one big family and all have the same dangerous belief system.

The agency that has taken legal custody of 464 children sent its response Thursday to a petition from dozens of Fundamentalist LDS Church mothers. The petition asks the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals to order Judge Barbara Walther to return the children to their mothers.

"The community has one common belief system that young girls are called on to be wives and no age is too young to be married," wrote Texas Department of Family and Protective Services attorneys. Some adults and children at the ranch described it as "one large community," even though there are several houses at the complex.

"All of the women are called mothers to all of the children in the home, and the children call each other brothers and sisters," the response states.

When a victim of abuse is found inside a home, child welfare investigators have concerns for all of the children in that home. The court filing also states that a polygamous environment "would make a 15- or 16-year-old child highly vulnerable to individuals who are willing to exploit them and take advantage of their child-like qualities."

Previous court rulings have determined that it isn't necessary to prove that a parent personally abused his or her own child in order to show that a child is in danger, the court documents state.

Texas officials say several teens at the ranch were either pregnant or had children when they were underage. As for the boys and younger children, the agency argues says they are still in danger if allowed to continue living in that environment.

The new filing refers the appeals court to testimony from child psychiatrist Bruce Perry, who described an "unhealthy" belief that it's OK to have sex with and marry young women. "This pervasive practice and belief creates an environment that develops people who have a high potential of replicating sexual abuse of young children as a part of their belief system," the court document states.

"Part of the danger to the boys is that their belief system requires that they follow the prophet," it also stated.

The original petition to the Court of Appeals was filed on behalf of 38 women by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorneys. Those attorneys filed a response late Friday to DFPS' response, arguing that DFPS has no evidence or legal authority to treat the entire 1,700-acre ranch as one household.

"The department attempts to justify the mass separation of every single child from the YFZ Ranch from his or her mother on the ground of 'systematic and institutionalized sexual abuse of children.' That is a very strong allegation, yet it is not supported by sufficient evidence," attorneys for TRLA write.

"It is not reasonable to assume that all members are of one mind regarding their beliefs."

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid's original petition also argued that an April 17-18 adversary hearing for the children was improperly held "en masse" instead of holding hearings for each individual child. But DFPS says the actions of the parents forced the judge to hold the single hearing.

"It is the department's contention that (the mothers), by their conspiracy of silence, purposefully confused the identity of the children, which forced Judge Walther to conduct the proceedings as she did."

DFPS also says the FLDS women have no legal standing to have the judge reverse her ruling because they have "repeatedly declined" to even identify their children and the fathers. Neither the court nor the child welfare agency should "be forced to play guessing games when the safety and well-being of these children are at stake," the documents state.

Attorneys for the mothers denied the allegation but filed a list Friday of the names of the children of their clients.

The Department of Family and Protective Services also argued that all the mothers had an opportunity, through their attorneys, to confront and cross-examine the witnesses during the April 17-18 hearing. To hold individual hearings would have taken weeks or even months and would have been an "extraordinary waste of judicial resources."

In removing the children, attorneys for the mothers say the judge failed to consider less restrictive options such as ordering the men ("the alleged perpetrators of abuse") to leave the ranch or ordering mothers and their children to live elsewhere during the investigation.

DFPS argues that if the state does not have physical custody of the children, what's to prevent the mothers from leaving the state with them? It also asks how the court could know for certain which child legally belongs to whom.

As "the largest child protection case documented in the history of the United States," the department said the sheer numbers of FLDS children prevented it from pursuing other options it might have considered in a more typical case.

As for possible temporary restraining orders against men at the ranch, DFPS says that wasn't practical. "How could the department have identified the alleged perpetrator or perpetrators when the evidence demonstrated that the entire male and female population at the YFZ Ranch had been enculturated into the belief that underage marriage was sacrosanct?"

Attorneys for the mothers said the simplest solution would be to ask the men to leave the ranch — an action that would have caused less harm to the children.

"Testimony from doctors in case after case attests to the harm caused to removed children," the attorneys argued. Quoting another case, the attorneys wrote: "Taking a child whose greatest fear is separation from his or her mother and in the name of 'protecting' that child by forcing on them, what is in effect, their worst nightmare ... is tantamount to pouring salt on an open wound."

TRLA also said there was no evidence to show that any of the mothers are flight risks.

The group representing mothers also argued the while there may have been a number of underage girls who are pregnant or were believed to have been pregnant while underage, it does not justify the removal of all children.

"The department cannot take the circumstance of less than 5 percent of the children and extrapolate to over 400 children at the ranch. In short, to remove a child from his mother, there has to be individualized proof as to that mother. To interpret the statute otherwise would render it unconstitutional under the due process clause," the response states.

The Court of Appeals could rule on the issues in the petition or may hold a hearing to consider oral arguments.

E-mail: bwest@desnews.com