One of the biggest child custody cases in US history reached a turning point yesterday when a judge ordered the return of more than 400 children who had been taken from a polygamist sect’s ranch.
The majority of the children are likely to return to the ranch, called Yearning For Zion, in El Dorado, Texas, run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).
A spokesman for the group, Willie Jessop, said that it was pleased with the decision. “We are grateful that the court at least allowed mothers and children to come back,” Jessop said.
The order came after the Texas supreme court ruled last week that the state’s child protective services agency had been wrong to raid the compound in April.
The agency, acting on anonymous telephone calls reporting sexual abuse at the compound, removed 468 children and placed them in foster care across the state.
But the appeals court agreed with a lower court ruling that officials had failed to prove that the children were in immediate danger when they were removed.
Investigators failed to identify the pregnant 16-year-old who had made the calls alleging that her middle-aged husband beat her, raising the possibility that the calls were a hoax.
Despite the failure, authorities insisted they had little choice other than to remove the children.
“We had no choice but to treat those calls as credible,” said a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety. “If we had not treated them as credible and something bad happened, people would be very upset.”
At a brief news conference yesterday a child protection services spokeswoman insisted that the investigation would continue. “We still feel very strongly about this case and the safety of these children,” she said.
Authorities believed that underage girls were being forced into marriage and sex at the FLDS compound.
The raid was the second time in a year that the sect has been the focus of a major investigation. In November the sect’s leader, Warren Jeffs, was sentenced to two consecutive terms of five years to life for being an accomplice to rape related to a marriage he performed in 2001. He is currently in jail awaiting trial on charges of sexual conduct with a minor and incest.
Documents seized during the raid showed that Jeffs, 52, had married four girls under the age of 14, one in Utah in 2004 and three at the Texas compound. Recovered photographs also appeared to show Jeffs kissing his young brides. One shows him with his 15-year-old wife at the birth of their baby.
Last week authorities took DNA samples from Jeffs to help them determine whether he is the father of children born to underage mothers.
Under the terms of the order issued by the court all the children must remain in Texas, and parents collecting their children must be photographed and agree to cooperate with any inquiry. They must also attend parenting classes.
The raid on the compound brought back memories of the 1992 raid on the Branch Davidian ranch near Waco, Texas, which resulted in the deaths of 21 children.
The FLDS compound is similarly cut off from the rest of the world. The raid and the images of young mothers and children being removed from their community prompted intense media scrutiny of the group.
Former FLDS members who had left the sect were frequently featured on US television news discussing their experiences and how to escape the polygamous lifestyle. After initial reluctance, several mothers from the sect also began to appear regularly in the media defending their way of life.
Dressed in simple dresses with their hair tied in buns, the women were an echo of another era. Their children were similarly unworldly, with social workers reporting that many of them were unfamiliar with simple childhood items such as crayons. They had also been taught to fear anyone wearing red clothing, the colour of the devil.
Prosecutors alleged that the cult was forcing girls as young as 12 into marriage. But initial reports of more than 30 underage mothers proved to be mistaken as investigators were able to determine the age of the women.
The FLDS, which claims it has around 10,000 members, split from the Mormon church more than a century ago. As well as the compound in Texas and members in Mexico and Canada, it openly practices polygamy in two neighbouring communities in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.
Although polygamy is illegal, the FLDS maintains that a man must have three wives to reach the highest realms of heaven.