A Texas state court of appeals ruled Thursday afternoon that the state of Texas had no right to seize more than 400 children from a polygamist ranch in Eldorado, in the western part of the state.
The ruling asserted that the state’s child protection agency not only acted hastily in removing the children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in April but also failed to show that they were in immediate danger. According to the court, the state did not establish proper grounds to remove the children from their families, who belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or F.L.D.S. The F.L.D.S. broke off from the mainstream Mormon church after it had disavowed polygamy in 1890.
At news conference in San Angelo, the closest city to Eldorado, a lawyer for the sect said it was unclear when the families would be reunited, and that the team was reviewing the next legal steps in the process.
Lawyers for the state did not immediately respond to the ruling.
The agency raided the ranch and the sect’s temple on April 3 after someone had called an abuse hot line and said that she was a 16-year-old child bride being abused by her older husband in the church’s compound. The caller has still not been found.
State agency officials, who have been criticized for their handling of the raid, said taking all the children in the church’s compound were necessary because the culture of the sect led to illegal under-age marriage for girls and acceptance of that practice by boys, a pattern that the state said endangers both sexes.
The court action on Thursday followed a writ of mandamus filed by the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid group — the largest provider of legal aid in the state — and 48 mothers from the sect who were representing their children.
“We’re extremely happy with the ruling,” Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid group, told The Houston Chronicle.
“The way that the courts have ignored the legal rights of these mothers is ridiculous,” Julie Balovich, also of RioGrande, added. “It was about time a court stood up and said that what has been happening to these families is wrong.”
Many of the families affected by the raid are related and share last names like Jeffs, which is also the name of the F.L.D.S. leader, Warren S. Jeffs, who was convicted last year on a rape charge for imposing marriage between an under-age girl and older man in Utah.
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