Texas child welfare authorities today appealed a court ruling that the state had no right to seize more than 400 children taken from a polygamist sect, indicating the state won't give up custody of the children without a fight.
Even as the state attempted to overturn that decision, which threatens to unravel the largest child custody case in U.S. history, lawyers for some of the families said 12 sect children would be temporarily reunited with their families as early as tonight.
The lawyers for fathers Leland Keate, Rulon Keate and Joseph Jessop said Texas Child Protective Services agreed to allow the children to live with their parents pending a June 9 custody hearing.
A Child Protective Services spokeswoman said she did not know if the children would be returned and declined to comment further.
The decision to return the children comes a day after the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin ruled in a separate case that the state Child Protective Services did not present enough evidence during an April hearing to show that the hundreds of children taken from the sect ranch were in immediate danger of abuse, which would have justified keeping them in state custody.
In its emergency appeal filed today, the state argued that the appeals court decision would force the return of 124 children to the ranch and would probably affect many of the other sect children in state custody.
Returning the children would subject them to continuing sexual abuse, because, protective services argued in its appeal, the sect forces underage girls to marry older men.
"This case is about adult men commanding sex from underage children; about adult women knowingly condoning and allowing sexual abuse of underage children," the state wrote.
The state also argued it could not identify the parents of the 124 children because it had not completed maternity and paternity testing, making any order to return the children difficult to carry out. From the outset, the state argued, its investigation was thwarted because the children and mothers refused to cooperate, giving investigators different names at different times.
From a legal standpoint, the state argued that the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin applied the wrong standard of review when it held that there was not enough evidence of an immediate danger of abuse to continue holding the children in state custody.
The appeals court was supposed to determine whether Judge Barbara Walther's order keeping the kids in state custody was so arbitrary and unreasonable as to be a clear abuse of discretion. Instead, Texas argued, the appeals court seemed essentially to rehear the entire case.
The state raided the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints compound last month and took more than 450 children into state custody after Texas authorities received a call from someone who claimed to be a 16-year-old who was trapped in the sect's compound and said she was being physically and sexually abused.
During a massive hearing last month in which hundreds of lawyers were jammed into the courtroom and in a nearby overflow room connected by closed circuit TV, judge Walther ruled that all the children should be placed in temporary foster homes.
The 3rd Court of Appeals, in response to motions from 41 sect mothers, ruled that Walther abused her authority in keeping the children in state custody. It ordered her to release the children within 10 days.