SAN ANGELO, Texas — Texas child welfare authorities plan Friday to appeal a stinging ruling that found they had no right to seize more than 440 children from a polygamist sect’s ranch, a court spokesman said.
Child Protective Services notified the Texas Supreme Court on Friday that “they will file something today,” court spokesman Osler McCarthy said.
The state can ask the high court to block the ruling Thursday by the Third Court of Appeals in Austin. The appellate court found the state failed to show the children were in any immediate danger when they were rounded up from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado and sent to foster facilities around the state.
A message left for a Child Protective Services spokeswoman was not immediately returned Friday.
Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints hailed Thursday’s ruling as vindication. They’ve said there was no abuse at the ranch in west Texas and they were being persecuted for their religious beliefs.
Church members said they were elated but expected an appeal.
“We’re going to take it one day at a time,” James Dockstader said Friday on NBC’s “Today.” “We expect that they would go ahead and appeal it, but we are in full hope that” the children will return soon.
He and his wife, Nancy, have five children in state custody.
The ruling in one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history, hammered the state for removing the children and directed state District Judge Barbara Walther to vacate the order. Technically, it applied only to the children of 38 mothers named in the appeal, but the ruling was broad enough to cover nearly every child swept up in the April raid.
The children were taken into custody more than six weeks ago after someone called a hot line claiming to be a pregnant, abused teenage wife. The girl has not been found and authorities are investigating whether the calls were a hoax.
Child welfare officials argued that five girls at the ranch had become pregnant at 15 and 16 and that the sect pushed underage girls into marriage and sex with older men and groomed boys to enter into such unions when they grew up.
But the appeals court said the state acted too hastily in sweeping up all the children and taking them away on the broad beliefs of the renegade Mormon sect.
“Even if one views the FLDS belief system as creating a danger of sexual abuse by grooming boys to be perpetrators of sexual abuse and raising girls to be victims of sexual abuse … there is no evidence that this danger is ‘immediate’ or ‘urgent,'” the court said.
“Evidence that children raised in this particular environment may someday have their physical health and safety threatened is not evidence that the danger is imminent enough to warrant invoking the extreme measure of immediate removal,” the court said.
The court said the state failed to show that any more than five of the teenage girls were being sexually abused, and offered no evidence of sexual or physical abuse against the other children. Half the youngsters taken from the ranch were 5 or younger. Only a few dozen are teenage girls.
The court also said the state was wrong to consider the entire ranch as a single household and to seize all the children because some parents in the home might be abusers.
The Department of Family and Protective Services issued a statement defending the raid, saying it removed the children “after finding a pervasive pattern of sexual abuse that puts every child at the ranch at risk.”
“Child Protective Services has one duty _ to protect children. When we see evidence that children have been sexually abused and remain at risk of further abuse, we will act,” the department said.
Julie Balovich, a Legal Aid attorney, said the court “has stood up for the legal rights of these families and given these mothers hope that their families will be brought back together.”
Five judges in San Angelo, about 40 miles north of Eldorado, had been holding hearings on what the parents must do to regain custody when the appellate decision was issued. Those hearings were suspended after the ruling Thursday.
The custody case has been chaotic from the beginning. During the first round of hearings, held two weeks after the April 3 raid, hundreds of lawyers crammed into a courtroom and nearby auditorium, queuing up to voice objections or ask questions on behalf of the mothers who were there in their trademark prairie dresses and braided hair.
Of the 31 people the state initially said were underage mothers, at least 15 were reclassified as adults before the hearings were suspended. One mother is 27.
The state has struggled for weeks to establish the identities of the children and sort out their tangled family relationships. The youngsters are in foster homes all over the sprawling state, with some brothers or sisters separated by as much as 600 miles.
Associated Press writer Jim Vertuno contributed to this report from Austin.