Texas seizure of polygamist-sect kids thrown out
By MICHELLE ROBERTS (Associated Press Writer)
From Associated Press
May 22, 2008 3:06 PM EDT

SAN ANGELO, Texas - A Texas appeals court said Thursday that the state had no right to
take more than 400 children from a polygamist sect's ranch, a ruling that could unravel
one of the biggest child-custody cases in U.S. history.


The Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled that the state offered "legally and factually
insufficient" grounds for the "extreme" measure of removing all children from the ranch,
from babies to teenagers.


The state never provided evidence that the children were in any immediate danger, the
only grounds in Texas law for taking children from their parents without court approval,
the appeals court said.


It also failed to show evidence that more than five of the teenage girls were being
sexually abused, and never alleged any sexual or physical abuse against the other
children, the court said.


It was not immediately clear whether the children scattered across foster facilities
statewide might soon be reunited with parents. The ruling gave Texas District Judge
Barbara Walther 10 days to vacate her custody order, and the state could appeal.


FLDS spokesman Rod Parker said sect members feel validated, having argued from
the beginning that they were being persecuted for their beliefs.


"They're very thrilled. They're looking forward to seeing the children returned," he
said.


The appellate decision technically applies only to 38 of the roughly 200 parents
who challenged the seizure. But their lawyer, Julie Balovich of Texas RioGrande Legal
Aid, said she expected attorneys for all the other parents to seek to join the ruling.


"It's a great day for Texas justice. This was the right decision," said Balovich, who
was joined by several smiling mothers who nonetheless declined to comment at a
news conference outside the courthouse here.


Every child at the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado was taken into state custody
more than six weeks ago, after Child Protective Services officials argued that
members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints pushed
underage girls into marriage and sex and groomed boys to become adult perpetrators.
Only a few dozen of the roughly 440 children seized are teenage girls; half were under 5.


The appeals court said the state was wrong to consider the entire ranch as an individual
household and that the state couldn't take all the children from a community on the
notion that some parents in the community might be abusers.


"The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the department's witnesses,
by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger," the court said in its
ruling.


The court said that although five girls had become pregnant at age 15 or 16, the state
gave no evidence about the circumstances of the pregnancies. It noted that minors as
young as 16 can wed in Texas with parental consent, and even younger children can
marry if a court approves it.


Balovich said the appeals court "has stood up for the legal rights of these families and
given these mothers hope that their families will be brought back together."


CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said department attorneys had just received the ruling
and would make any decision about an appeal later.


"We are trying to assess the impact that this may have on our case," he said.

Even before Thursday's ruling, the state's allegations of teenage girls being pushed
into sex appeared to be deflating.


Of the 31 sect members CPS once said were underage mothers, 15 have been
reclassified as adults - one was 27 years old - and an attorney for a 14-year-old girl
said in court that she had no children and was not pregnant, as officials previously
asserted.


Five judges in San Angelo, about 40 miles north of Eldorado, have been hearing
CPS's plans for the parents seeking to regain custody. Those hearings, which began
Monday, were suspended after the appellate ruling Thursday.


The custody case has been chaotic from the beginning. The hearing in which Walther
ruled that the children should all enter state custody ran two days.


Hundreds of lawyers crammed into a courtroom and nearby auditorium, queuing up
to voice objections or ask questions on behalf of the mothers who were there in
their trademark prairie dresses and braided hair.


CPS has struggled with even the identities of the children for weeks and scattered
them across foster facilities all over the sprawling state, with some siblings
separated by as much as 600 miles.


The sect children were removed en masse during a raid that began April 3 after
someone called a domestic abuse hot line claiming to be a pregnant abused
teenage wife. The girl has not been found and authorities are investigating whether
the calls were a hoax.


The FLDS, which teaches that polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a
breakaway of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century
ago. Members contend they are being persecuted by state officials for their
religious beliefs.


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