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
grounds for the "extreme" measure of removing all children from the
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,
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
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
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
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
said she expected attorneys for all the other parents to seek to join
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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