SAN ANGELO, Texas – A Texas district judge on Monday ordered the immediate return of the more than 400 children taken from a polygamist sect’s ranch, bringing a sudden end to one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history.
Texas District Judge Barbara Walther, responding to a state Supreme Court ruling last week, signed the order filed by attorneys for the parents and Child Protective Services, allowing the parents to begin picking their children up from foster care facilities around the state almost immediately.
The order requires the parents to stay in Texas, to attend parenting classes and to allow the children to be examined as part of any ongoing child abuse investigation. But it does not put restrictions on the children’s fathers, require that polygamy is renounced or that parents live away from the Yearning For Zion Ranch.
“We’re really grateful to get the order signed,” said Willie Jessop, an elder for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the sect that runs the ranch.
Two months in foster care has taken a toll on the children, who previously lived an insular life on the self-contained ranch where church teachings dominated the way of life, and he hoped for a less restrictive order, he said, without elaborating.
The order requires that parents allow CPS to make unannounced visits to the families and that they notify CPS if they plan to travel more than 100 miles from their homes.
The Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed an appeals court ruling ordering Walther to reverse her decision in April putting all children from the ranch into foster case. The Supreme Court and the appeals court rejected the state’s argument that all the children were in immediate danger from what it said was a cycle of sexual abuse of teenage girls at the ranch.
Half the children sent to foster care were no older than 5.
The FDLS denies any abuse of the children and says they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.
The Third Court of Appeals last week ruled that the state failed to show that any more than five of the teenage girls were being sexually abused, and had offered no evidence of sexual or physical abuse against the other children.
Roughly 430 children from the ranch are in foster care after two births, numerous reclassifications of adult women initially held as minors and a handful of agreements allowing parents to keep custody while the Supreme Court considered the case.
It’s not clear how many might return to the ranch right away. Many of the parents have purchased or rented homes in Amarillo, San Antonio and other places around the state, where the children were placed in foster facilities.
The FLDS, which teaches that polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.