I'm not quite as old-fashioned as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), which hews to the early-marriage customs of the 19th century and the polygamous practices of biblical times. But I'm old-fashioned enough to believe the government needs a good reason to pull a crying, clinging child away from her mother and hand her over to the care of strangers.

The possibility that the child might marry an older man 10 or 12 or 14 years from now does not cut it. Citing that long-term, speculative danger to justify the certain, immediate damage it has done by forcibly separating hundreds of children from their parents, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has violated its duty to take such extreme measures only when there's no other way to prevent imminent harm.

The department took custody of 463 minors who were living at the FLDS church's Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch in Eldorado after an April 3 raid that was based on an abuse report police believe was a hoax. On Monday state officials said the children, who are now living in group homes or shelters, include 53 girls between the ages of 14 and 17, of whom 31 are pregnant or have children.

I don't know whether to believe that. Texas officials have proven unreliable even on such basic questions as the justification for the raid, which was a report of physical abuse from a 16-year-old YFZ resident who apparently does not exist, and the number of children seized, a figure that was revised yet again this week. Just a few days ago, the number of underage mothers was said to be 20.

It's not clear how the government determined the ages of these girls. It says many who claimed to be adults were in fact minors, while FLDS members say many of the girls the state describes as minors are in fact adults.

Furthermore, the age of consent for sex in Texas is 17, while the minimum age for marriage, with parental approval, is 16 (raised in 2005 from 14 with the FLDS in mind). Hence a pregnant 16- or 17-year-old is not necessarily evidence that any laws have been broken.

Even by the government's account, 463 children were forcibly removed from their homes because 7 percent of them may have been victims of sexual abuse. Although there's no evidence that boys or prepubescent girls were abused at YFZ, the minors in state custody include 213 boys and about 130 children under the age of 5.

What is the state's rationale for taking girls who were not pregnant or mothers along with those who were, for taking boys along with girls, and for taking infants, toddlers, and preschoolers along with teenagers? In an affidavit, it asserts "a pervasive pattern and practice of indoctrinating and grooming minor female children to accept spiritual marriages to adult male members of the YFZ Ranch resulting in them being abused." As for the boys, "after they become adults, [they] are spiritually married to minor female children and engage in sexual relationships with them resulting in them becoming sexually [sic] perpetrators."

In short, the whole FLDS culture is sick and corrupt, so anyone raised in that environment is ipso facto a victim of abuse. This theory of collective guilt, which was accepted by Judge Barbara Walther after a chaotic and cursory mass hearing on April 17, is the antithesis of the individualized risk assessment that is supposed to justify taking a child from his parents.

Some YFZ residents say they do not approve of marriage before the legal age of consent, while others say they do not practice polygamy at all. Yet all were tarred with the same broad brush, based on a principle that church attorney Rod Parker aptly summed up this way: "If you're a member of this religious group, then you're not allowed to have children."

© Copyright 2008 by Creators Syndicate Inc.