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.
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 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 never located the 16-year-old girl and now have concluded that 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. 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.