SAN ANGELO, Tex., June 3 — The state of Texas’s case against members of a polygamist sect is damaged but not dead, legal experts said — even after a series of court defeats that ended with the return of hundreds of children who had been seized at the group’s compound.
On Tuesday, as members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints continued to pick up their children from foster homes, some in Texas said that the court rulings proved the state had overreacted when it removed more than 400 children from their parents.
But child-protection authorities said their investigation will carry on. And legal experts said they might still have a good chance at proving abuse at the Yearning for Zion Ranch, using DNA tests and seized records to show that underage girls were married to and impregnated by older men.
“Simply returning the kids to the ranch . . . doesn’t say there can never be any individual prosecutions” said Adam Gershowitz, a professor who teaches Texas criminal procedure at the South Texas College of Law in Houston. “If the evidence indicates that men have been having sexual relations with underage girls, that’s still a crime.”
The state’s case began on April 3, when state authorities raided the group’s compound near Eldorado, Tex. The state alleged that the group’s beliefs, which allowed girls to become wives and mothers just after puberty, created a physical threat to some children and a threat of psychological corrosion for all.
But last week, the state Supreme Court rejected that logic and pressed the state to provide evidence of abuse or threats against individual children.
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Following their direction, on Monday a lower court judge in San Angelo ordered all the children released. By Tuesday afternoon, 229 had already left.
One lawyer, however, pressed for an order exempting her client, a girl from the sect, from the order releasing the children. The lawyer declined to give details, beyond saying the girl would be in too much danger of abuse if she went back to the compound.
Seventy-two of the boys who are returning home had been living at Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch, a group home outside Amarillo, Tex. Dan Adams, the home’s president and chief executive, said that the staff had spent weeks trying to explain to the boys why they were there.
“They just wanted us to know that they were good people,” Adams said in a phone interview. Not wanting to offer an opinions, Adams said, his staff said, ” ‘You seem to be good boys.’ You know, we didn’t try to get into explanations about why the state did what they did.”
Some outside the sect also have questioned the state’s actions. John Kight — chairman of the board for a Kerrville, Tex., mental health center that treated some of them — said the seizures had been painful and unnecessary.
“It was just traumatic on the little kids,” said Kight, of the Hill Country Community Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center. The state, he said, “decided that the people were guilty, and they have to prove themselves innocent.”
On Tuesday, an official who oversees the Texas child-protection agency defended its actions in an opinion column in USA Today. Albert Hawkins, the executive commissioner of the state Health and Human Services Commission, said that investigators had found evidence of underage pregnancies — and evidence that children had been coached to lie and confuse.
“They found records indicating a pattern of underage marriages and births. And they encountered a wall of deception unlike any they had experienced,” Hawkins wrote. A spokeswoman declined to make him available for an interview Tuesday.
Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, said their investigation is continuing — as is a separate, criminal, inquiry by the Texas attorney general’s office.
Neither agency has revealed much about the evidence it has accumulated against the sect. But, in the last couple of weeks, court documents have indicated that records found at the ranch may provide definite proof about who married whom, and whether the bride was underage.
Last week, for instance, state investigators cited records and wedding photos taken from the ranch as they sought a warrant to take DNA samples from the FLDS’ jailed prophet, Warren Jeffs. They said the records showed Jeffs had married at least four underage girls, and the photos showed him kissing one and cradling another’s baby.
Experts on child-abuse investigations said these records could provide evidence of improper sexual relationships, even if the underage girls cannot be coaxed into testifying against their husbands.
More information could come from DNA test results: The state has sought DNA samples from dozens of men and women, to establish how they are related to the sect’s children. Expert said this could provide powerful evidence.
The state “got knocked down twice in the first round, then the bell rang and they went to their corner,” said John Sampson, a University of Texas law professor. “There will be a second round, for sure.”