SAN ANGELO, Texas - More than 400 children removed from a polygamist sect's ranch will be returned to their parents beginning Monday, state officials said yesterday.
The children will not be able to leave Texas, but they will be allowed to move back to the Yearning For Zion Ranch, where, child welfare officials allege, underage girls were pushed into marriages with older men. The parents say there was no abuse, and two courts ruled that the state overstepped its authority in removing all children from the ranch, from infants to teenagers.
Texas Child Protective Services took custody of the children from the west Texas ranch after a raid nearly two months ago. A court order that a judge restore custody to parents applies to only 124 of the children, but state officials said about 300 others taken under identical circumstances will also be returned.
A draft agreement released by Gary Banks, a lawyer for Child Protective Services, says the parents can get their children back after showing identification and pledging to take parenting classes and to remain in Texas.
The agreement was reached with 38 mothers of 124 children who filed the complaint that prompted the Texas Supreme Court's ruling Thursday.
The agreement does not specify that the fathers must stay away, and it allows the children to return to the ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Eldorado, about 40 miles south of San Angelo.
Texas District Judge Barbara Walther made revisions to the deal, and lawyers on both sides were reviewing them yesterday.
The high court affirmed a decision by an appeals court last week and said Child Protective Services failed to show an immediate danger to nearly all the children swept up from the ranch.
"On the record before us, removal of the children was not warranted," the justices said in a ruling issued in Austin.
The Texas high court let stand the appeals court's order that Texas District Judge Barbara Walther return the children from foster care to their parents within a reasonable time period.
Walther ruled last month that the children should be placed in foster care after a chaotic custody hearing involving hundreds of lawyers representing the individual children and parents.
Willie Jessop - an elder of the church, a breakaway Mormon sect - said Thursday that parents were excited about the court's decision, but would be apprehensive until they get their children back.
"We're just looking forward to when little children can be in the arms of their parents," he said.
The Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled last week that the state failed to show that any more than five of the teenage girls were being sexually abused and had offered no evidence of sexual or physical abuse against the other children.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints teaches that polygamy brings glorification in heaven. The larger Mormon church renounced polygamy more than a century ago.
Texas officials contended at one point that there were 31 teenage girls at the ranch who were pregnant or had been pregnant, but later conceded that about half of those mothers, if not more, were adults. One was 27.
Roughly 430 children from the ranch are in foster care after two births, numerous reclassifications of adult women initially held as minors, and a handful of agreements allowing parents to keep custody while the Supreme Court considered the case.
Under state law, children can be taken from their parents if there is a danger to their physical safety, an urgent need for protection, and if officials made a reasonable effort to keep the children in their homes. The high court agreed with the appellate court that the seizures fell short of that standard.
The justices said child welfare officials could take numerous actions to protect children short of separating them from their parents and placing them in foster care. The high court said Walther could put restrictions on the children and parents to address concerns that they may flee, once reunited.