SAN ANGELO, Texas — The American Civil Liberties Union is stepping away from merely observing the situation involving the hundreds of children placed in state protective custody in the raid on the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch.

The ACLU of Texas filed a brief today with the Texas Supreme Court, siding with a group of mothers seeking the immediate return of their children.

"The State's sole evidence on harm was limited to general allegations that these parents are part of a 'culture,' and subscribe to a 'belief,' and a 'mindset,' that girls as young as 14 may be considered of age to marry," ACLU attorney Lisa Graybill wrote in the brief obtained by the Deseret News...

"The record contains no evidence of harm specific to the children of real parties in interest. The United States Constitution does not allow DFPS to separate children and their parents based solely on beliefs."

The ACLU criticizes the mass hearing in April that led a judge to find abuse and order more than 450 children to be placed in the custody of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The ACLU said the hearing denied everyone their due process rights and the families are entitled to a fair treatment under Texas law.

Earlier this month, the ACLU issued a statement, saying it had "serious concerns" about the rights of the FLDS people being trampled on in the massive custody hearings. It also supported a decision by Austin's 3rd Court of Appeals in favor of the FLDS mothers.

"State officials have an important obligation to protect children against abuse," Graybill said in a statement. "However, such actions should not be indiscriminately targeted against a group as a whole — particularly when the group is perceived as being different or unusual. Actions should be based on concrete evidence of harm and not based upon prejudice against religious or other communities."

Meanwhile, a friend-of-the court brief was filed today in defense of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

Barbara J. Elias-Perciful, a Dallas-based attorney who specializes in child welfare law, filed the brief on behalf of "child clients."

"This case involves the systematic rape of minor children — conduct that is institutionalized and euphemistically called 'spiritual marriage.' That label, however, cannot change the fact that the conduct exposed by the testimony in the 14-day hearing in the lower court is child sexual abuse as a matter of law," she wrote.

Elias-Perciful wrote that the 3rd Court of Appeals ignored evidence of underage pregnancies, and that despite extensive evidence of sexual abuse, incorrectly concluded there was no danger to other children. She said that the children deserve to be in a household free from sexual abuse and that to return the children now "would send a message that sexual abuse of young girls is not a serious matter."

"It will also eliminate the parents' incentive to make the difficult changes necessary to ensure the safety of their children," Elias-Perciful wrote. "For many, this will mean having to make a choice to leave behind a lifestyle that included sexual abuse of young girls, training girls to accept abuse, and training boys to be perpetrators. More importantly, as the Department has effectively established, the evidence shows a serious flight risk for these children."

Elias-Perciful said that removing the children is a step down a path toward a safer life for children.

"Removal is like the painful surgery that is necessary before healing can take place," she wrote. "It can be the best and only chance to protect the child and is the best chance to reunify the family in a healthy way."


E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com