April 17, 2008 — -- It was like a kid's worst nightmare: Police with automatic weapons descended, strangers swept children off to a cold, crowded shelter, chicken pox broke out, and then their moms were hauled away.
In the largest child welfare case in U.S. history, 416 children were removed from the polygamous Yearning for Zion ranch in rural Texas after authorities received a complaint alleging sexual abuse.
These insulated children -- some as young as 5 years old -- have been taken from their mothers to prevent any further possible abuse and will be placed in foster care until a judge unravels this massive custody fight.
But child welfare experts fear the state's actions may be worse than whatever might have gone on at the ranch.
"What Texas has done is barbaric," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. "The worst thing you can do to these children is separate them from their mothers."
"Taking a child away is tantamount to pouring salt in an open wound, so basically the position of the Texas Department of Child Protective Services is 'Pass the salt,'" he told ABCNEWS.com.
Texas Children's Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner defended her decision to separate children from their mothers, saying she had consulted experts.
"I can tell you we believe the children who are victims of abuse or neglect, and particularly victims at the hands of their own parents, certainly are going to feel safer to tell their story when they don't have a parent there that's coaching them with how to respond," Meisner told The Associated Press.
But Wexler countered in his blog. "No doubt Texas CPS will claim that they had to get the mothers completely out of the way to make it easier to get the children to tell them what happened at the [ranch]," he wrote. "That's probably true. It also would be easier to get information out of the children if you waterboarded them -- but that doesn't make it a good idea."
Texas District Judge Barbara Walther admitted to news media "Quite frankly, I'm not sure what we're going to do" as the fate of hundreds of children hung in limbo.
Former state welfare judge Scott McCown echoed concerns that the beleaguered Texas foster care system could not handle this dramatic case.
"They are trying to do the best job they can," McCown, now executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, told ABCNEWS.com. "But Texas has an underfunded and overworked foster care system."
The state recently added 500 new caseworkers, but at least that many are now rotating three-day shifts to help in St. Angelo, where most of the children are being held at the coliseum.
"It's putting a tremendous strain on the system," he said. "It's tough on all our kids, because of the tremendous energy and time and money that is being diverted from everywhere in the state."
Many child advocates say that even in ordinary circumstances, separation from the mother is the worst-case scenario for the well-being of the child. They say a disproportionate number of foster children end up in jail, psychiatric institutions or homeless shelters.
The national coalition cites an 80 percent failure rate in a foster care, with some studies showing abuse in up to one-third of all foster homes. "It's a pernicious system that churns out the walking wounded," said Wexler. "Some of these kids are likely to be abused again."
"It's an enormous trauma to these children," he said. "The mothers may have been abused themselves, and when you take the child, the child loses what he or she thinks is her sole lifeline, the only thing that is loving and familiar."
The state has charged the polygamous sect of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints with arranged marriages that sometimes pairs older men with underage girls. But Wexler said punishing the mother -- a "nonoffending parent" -- is a practice that was outlawed as unconstitutional in a federal lawsuit filed in 2002 by battered mothers in New York City.
"One expert after another testified how harmful to the child it is to be taken from the nonoffending mother," he said. "They should have been treated like refugees, keeping children and mothers together."
The separations continued this week as 27 boys were moved 400 miles away to Cal Farley's Boys Ranch, a residential institution for wayward children north of Amarillo. The ranch typically takes children from private referrals, many from dysfunctional families that require separation, according to CEO Dan Adams.
"We try to normalize their situation as much as possible under the circumstances with lots of supervision around them and give them plenty to do and feed them," Adams told ABCNEWS.com. "Beyond that, we don't know because it's early."
Adams said the boys will need more than physical care. "They have been involved in circumstances out of their control, and I think just as for any kids, it's the unknown," he said. "But your intuition tells you it's going to be difficult."
Johana Scot, executive director of the Parent Guidance Center in Austin, noted that these residential institutions are not carefully supervised. The state only requires one on-site visit a year unless a report of abuse is filed.
"It scares me," said Scot, who works to reunite mothers with their children after accusations of abuse or neglect.
Scot said she fears children are being moved from one isolated community to another -- Cal Farley's Boys Ranch, "a self-contained community with its own form of government, a bank, a post office, medical facilities and its own school."
"There is also a religious component and required chapel," she added. "It sounds frighteningly horrible."
Authorities have said the children will likely be scattered across Texas -- a state that is 1,000 miles wide. Even with visitation rights, mothers may not be able to travel those distances to see their children.
"Even if the abuse took place, the mothers weren't perpetrators," said Scot. "According to their indoctrination, 100 percent of their identity and value in that communal setting is tied to their motherhood. To separate them from their children is far more psychologically damaging to the mothers."
"You could argue that they are brainwashed, and that could be true, and you do further damage," she said. "It reminded me of the Nazis and how the parents and children were divided on the train platforms."
Scot argues that by separating families, the state only reinforces the mistrust that these religious sects have of the outside world.
That world has been hard on the polygamist sects, according to Irwin Altman, a retired psychology professor from the University of Utah who co-wrote "Polygamist Families in Contemporary Society."
An estimated 10,000 live in neighboring Hillsdale, Utah; Colorado City, Ariz.; as well as in the Dakotas. Altman said his research showed that their family life was "as variable" as that in monogamous ones.
"We tend to stereotype all these families the same way, in their treatment of women and treatment of children, and that's not always the case," he said. "Our research suggests that abuse in these communities is no more than in communities at large."
Altman, who has worked on a review board for foster care, said the courts and media should not be so quick to judge these communities and feared many would be traumatized by the separations.
"Foster children in general have a tough time of it, and I imagine these kids do too," he said. "It may even be accentuated by the fact that all of a sudden they were wrenched from their families."
But those close to the Mormon community said these radical sects are a real threat to the welfare of their women and children.
Sandra Tanner, who was raised as a fifth-generation Mormon and is a direct descendant of Brigham Young, maintained that abuse is rooted in the polygamous culture of the church.
"These kids have been raised in an environment more controlling than the Amish," said Tanner, 67, who is the founder and president of the Utah Lighthouse Ministry, an evangelical Christian organization that opposes Mormon teachings.
"There is no question the children have been abused," said Tanner, whose own grandmother was a polygamist, living until the 1950s. She and her husband, raised in California, left the Church of Latter Day Saints after raising questions about teachings that "didn't add up."
"Many women in these polygamous groups talk about the emotional pressure put on young women to accept whomever the prophet says to marry," she said. "There is no love involved, and in some of these groups, the prophet has the power to trade off his wife to another man."
The youngest wives may be 13 or younger in some of the sects, according to Tanner. "They are raised to believe God requires it," she said.
"Part of the mentality is if you marry a girl young enough and she starts having children, she won't leave the group. She won't flee because she won't abandon her children."
But Tanner admitted that finding good homes for the 416 children posed a challenge. "They need to be in normal families," she said, adding that the mothers should be relocated outside the compound, as well.
"If they ever leave the group, they aren't prepared and they are isolated," she said. "It's horrific, and I cannot comprehend it."