April 3, 2009 -- One year after the state of Texas took their children, about 100 members of a polygamist sect returned to Fort Concho in San Angelo, Texas, where hundreds of women and children were brought after being removed from the "Yearning for Zion" ranch in Eldorado, Texas.
Texas Child Protection officials took 439 children into custody from a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, ranch, in a raid that began the night of April 3, 2008, saying underage girls were being married off to older men and the sect's boys were being raised to become sexual predators.
In the largest child custody case in U.S. history, the Texas Supreme Court ordered hundreds of children from the sect, who had been held in state custody for a 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.
"Citizens should not be persuaded that they are benign just because they wear turn-of-the-century clothing," said Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo School of Law. "If we don't watch, children can be harmed."
Authorities now acknowledge the tip that started this investigation into child abuse and underage marriage came from a phony call to an abuse hotline. Today, only one child remains in state custody, and the sect says that two thirds of the families are back on the Eldorado ranch.
The group has invited friends and supporters to the ranch for a gathering, beginning at 1:00 p.m. Friday in the spirit of not forgetting what happened at Fort Concho, according to a Web site that supports the FLDS. Members of the sect will have dinner there Friday night.
To document the event that sect spokesman Willie Jessop has called the group's "911 experience," members have produced a very modern video detailing the raid by police and child protective services.
But since the group won its custody battle, the year has brought more than scrutiny. The sect's leader and "prophet" Warren Jeffs remains locked up after being convicted of being an accomplice to rape in a highly publicized 2006 trial.
Twelve FLDS men from Texas have been indicted on a variety of sex charges, including assault and bigamy.
Sect leaders have promised there will be no more underage marriages.
"Only time will tell if they honor that pledge, but they certainly know without a doubt that Texas will not idly stand by while they sexually abuse younger girls," said Texas Child Protection Services Commissioner Anne Hellingenstein.
Legal Battle Thrusts Texas Ranch Into Limelight
The Texas Supreme Court's decision to return hundreds of children from a polygamist sect to their parents last May technically applies to 38 mothers and their 126 children.
"On the record before us, removal of the children was not warranted," the court wrote in its decision.
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.
The Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled last May 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.
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.