SAN ANGELO, Texas — The state of Texas' broad sweep, rounding up 462 children from a polygamous sect's ranch, is raising constitutional questions even in a state where authorities have wide latitude for taking a family's children.
As the last of the children were moved out of temporary shelter and bused to foster homes across the state Friday, attorneys for the families and civil liberties groups cried foul.
The state says the adults are forcing teenage girls into marriage and sex, creating a culture so poisonous that none should be allowed to keep their children. But the wholesale sweep — from nursing infants to teenagers — has the appearance of "a class-action child removal," said Jessica Dixon, director of a child advocacy center at Southern Methodist University's law school in Dallas. "I've never heard of anything like that."
Rod Parker, a spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, contends that the state has essentially said, "If you're a member of this religious group, then you're not allowed to have children."
Church members said that not all of them practice polygamy and that some form traditional nuclear families. One sect member whose teenage son is now in foster care testified that she is a divorced single mother.
"Of course, we condemn child abuse," said Lisa Graybill of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. But "what the state has done has offended a pretty wide swath of the American people with what appears to be an overreaching action."
Texas law has a "very low burden for removal of children from a parent's home, at least temporarily," Dixon said. But authorities are supposed to keep children in their homes unless "a person of ordinary prudence and caution" believes there's a continuing and immediate danger.
"There was a systematic process going on to groom these young girls to become brides," said Darrell Azar of Child Protective Services. "Removal is always the last option," he said. "In this case, there was no other choice."
State officials say their long-term goal is reunification of the families, but some child welfare experts say the risks are great that Texas' understaffed and underfinanced child welfare system could fail the children, who have been deeply isolated from much of modern culture.