Judge Orders Sect Children Returned to Families

Order bars children in polygamist sect case from leaving Texas.


June 2, 2008— -- A Texas judge ordered hundreds of children from a polygamous religious sect who have been held in state custody for more than a month returned to their parents beginning today, ending legal wrangling between lawyers for the state and sect mothers.

The order from Judge Barbara Walther — whose decision to hold the children in temporary state custody was rejected by the Texas Supreme Court last week — calls for more than 430 sect children to be returned to their families starting this morning.

In order to be reunited with their children, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints parents must agree that the children will stay in the state, must have their fingerprints taken and must take parenting classes.

Though the children will be allowed to live with their parents, the order does not end Texas Child Protective Services' investigation into allegations of sexual abuse on the sect's Yearning for Zion ranch. The state claims that the sect forces underage girls to marry older men and breeds young men to become sexual abusers.

In a statement, the agency said it was "pleased with the plan approved by the court today" because it allows the children to be returned safely to their families and allows the state to continue its investigation.

"The safety of these children remains our only goal in this case," the statement said.

Walther's order requires sect families to cooperate with the ongoing investigation, including allowing CPS to interview the children at unannounced times and to give the children medical and psychiatric evaluations.

The order does not place restrictions on the sect's men or require children to live away from the ranch, as some parents had initially feared.

But lawyers for some of the mothers said logistical issues could delay the release of the children until Tuesday. Susan Hays, a lawyer for one of the mothers, said several mothers, some of whom have rented or bought houses near the foster homes where their children are being held, don't plan to return to the ranch for now. She said they were worried that potential criminal charges could be filed against sect members.

A lawyer for at least one child, an alleged victim of sexual abuse, obtained a court order to keep her in state custody until authorities can find a way to ensure that her alleged abuser does not get near her.

The state raided the ranch in early April and took more than 450 children into custody after receiving a call from a person who claimed to be a 16-year-old girl who was trapped on the compound and being abused by her adult husband. Police now believe the call may have been a hoax.

At a chaotic mass hearing in April, Walther ordered all the children to be held in state custody, while the state investigated the allegations of abuse.

In dramatic confrontations captured on camera by sect members, police took hundreds of children from their families and bused them to temporary shelters. Many children and their mothers were housed at the San Angelo, Texas, coliseum, where parents and some aid workers complained they were packed into cramped quarters and given inadequate food and medical care, before the kids were sent to foster homes across the state.

Walther's decision to hold the children in custody was overturned by the 3rd Court of Appeal in Austin. The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday upheld that decision, ruling that the state overstepped its authority when it took the children away. The court found that there was not enough evidence that they were in immediate danger of abuse to justify keeping them in custody.

The court ordered Walther to reverse her decision, though it allowed her to take other steps to protect the children.

ABC News' Neal Karlinsky and Ren Holding contributed to this report.

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