An appeals court ruled Thursday that Texas didn't have the authority to keep hundreds of children from a polygamist sect in state custody, a ruling that could derail one of the largest child protection cases in U.S. history.
The 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin, in response to motions from 41 sect mothers, ruled that Child Protective Services did not present enough evidence at an April hearing to show that the children were in immediate danger of abuse, which would have justified keeping them in state custody.
The impact of the decision was not immediately clear, but it could mean that the approximately 130 children of the 41 mothers will be returned to their families, possibly within 10 days.
Texas Child Protective Services was given 10 days to appeal the decision to the state supreme court, though by Thursday evening the agency had not decided if it would appeal.
The reasoning behind the decision will probably apply to the more than 300 other sect children in state custody -- a huge defeat for Child Protective Services, which claimed it had evidence of a widespread practice of marrying off underage girls to older men.
"It's a great day for Texas justice," said Julie Balovich, a lawyer for some of the women.
The ruling comes as several mental health workers, in court papers filed by Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' attorneys and obtained by ABC News, offered a portrait of the state's raid that at times appeared at odds with Child Protective Services' past descriptions, saying CPS workers were hostile and suspicious.
The state raided the compound and took all 463 children into state custody, first placing them in shelters at the local coliseum and then in temporary foster homes scattered across the state.
But a local judge had initially refused to allow Texas Rangers to search the compound, according to a statement from Texas Ranger Leslie Brooks Long. Long then took the same information to a different judge, who approved the search warrant, his statement says.
Linda Werlein, director of a local mental health and mental retardation center who assisted CPS in the days after the raid, said CPS workers treated her staff with suspicion, told her they would be arrested if they interfered with the questioning of the mothers, and that the church mothers would not talk without their attorneys present.
"Each and everything we were told was either inaccurate or untrue," she said in her statement, adding, "I was struck by what wonderful mothers they were."
She said CPS workers appeared suspicious of the mothers. At one point, she said, a CPS investigator told her that the sect would "kill all of the children they deemed to be imperfect."
Another mental health worker described the coliseum where the children were staying after being seized by the state as "like a Nazi concentration camp," saying the children were given inadequate food and lived in cramped quarters.
She said the lights were kept on at all hours and that CPS workers would shine flashlights in the faces of the women. When the mothers were separated from their children and returned to the ranch, several mental health workers said, they were not given a chance to say goodbye to their children.
By the end of their multiweek time in the emergency shelters, the women and children appeared "weak, confused and downright exhausted," wrote Bianca Spies.