The Texas Supreme Court Thursday ordered hundreds of children from a polygamist sect who have been held in state custody for the past month to be returned to their parents, agreeing with a lower court decision that the state had not proved that the children were in immediate danger of abuse.
Though the ruling technically applies to 38 mothers and their 126 children, it will likely also affect the hundreds of other children who are being held by the state -- and threatened to unravel the largest child custody case in U.S. history.
"On the record before us, removal of the children was not warranted," the court wrote in its decision today.
It was not clear when the children would be temporarily returned to their families. The court said Judge Barbara Walther, who ordered the children held in temporary state custody, could take other steps to ensure the safety of the children.
Texas Child Protection officials last month took more than 450 children into custody from a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints ranch, saying underage girls were being married off to older men and the sect's boys were being raised to become sexual predators.
A Child Protective Services spokeswoman had no immediate comment.
Last week the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin ruled that Child Protective Services did not present enough evidence during an April hearing to show that the children were in immediate danger of abuse, which would have justified keeping them in state custody.
The state Supreme Court, denying an appeal from Child Protective Services, found that child protection workers had other options short of taking the children away from their families, such as ordering alleged sexual offenders to stay away from the children's homes.
The ruling does not end the dispute between the sect and the government. The state can continue its investigation into allegations of abuse and can still attempt to remove the children from their homes permanently.
"This decision is an important step in reuniting these families," said Kevin Dietz, who is leading the group of attorneys representing the mothers. "It's great to see that the court system is working in the interest of justice."
In an opinion dissenting in part from the court's decision, three justices said that the state should have been able to keep pubescent girls in state custody. There was "evidence of a pattern or practice of sexual abuse of pubescent girls" but not of boys or prepubescent girls, the justices said.
The state raided the sect compound last month after receiving calls from a person who claimed to be a 16-year-old girl who was trapped on the compound and who was being abused by her adult husband. Child protection officials said they found underage girls on the ranch who were either pregnant or married.
"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 in a court appeal.
But the state's case has been plagued with problems from the start.
Authorities have never located the 16-year-old girl and are now investigating whether the calls were a hoax.
Texas officials claimed at one point that there were 31 teenage girls at the ranch who were pregnant or had been pregnant, but later conceded that nearly half of those mothers, if not more, were adults.
The massive custody case, unprecedented in its scope, also proved to be a logistical nightmare. Child custody workers are still sorting out the complicated family tree on the ranch. DNA testing for 603 children and adults is expected to be completed by early next week.
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.
During a hearing last month, hundreds of lawyers were jammed into the courtroom and in a nearby overflow room connected by closed circuit TV. At the end of that hearing, judge Walther ruled that all the children should be placed in temporary foster homes.
But the state Supreme Court was stymied by the fact that it had not provided evidence that each child was in immediate danger of continuing abuse.