Court Rejects Custody Ruling in Polygamy Case

A Texas appeals court overturns a lower court ruling that placed more than 400 children from a polygamist ranch in state custody. It's unclear if state authorities will appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

There was a major court ruling in Texas today regarding the more than 400 children removed last month from a polygamist ranch. An appeals court has said that the state had no right to seize them. The appeal was brought by 38 mothers of the children. Now a lower court has 10 days to return the kids.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn is covering the story, and he joins us now. Wade, this seems to be a major victory for the members of this group, the Fundamentalist of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

WADE GOODWYN: Yes, it certainly does. It certainly wasn't expected by Child Protective Services, that's for sure. And I'm guessing this ruling was also quite a surprise for Barbara Walther, the state judge who's overseeing this case, because it's quite a rebuke to her. Now if you talk to the lawyers for the mothers who brought this suit, they say this is no surprise at all. They argue that given the facts of the case, the appeals court really could have ruled no other way.

NORRIS: And can you tell us a little bit more about the ruling? Exactly what it spells out?

GOODWYN: The court ruled that Child Protective Services couldn't paint all these polygamist families with the same broad brush. The suit was brought by 38 mothers, and the court held that Texas had, you know, brought forth no specific evidence that the children of these particular mothers had been physically or sexually abused, and it ruled that if child welfare officials couldn't prove that each individual child was in immediate danger, then the children had to go back.

The court seem to concede that there was evidence that some of the FLDS children had been sexually abused at the ranch, but it rejected Texas' contention that these pregnant underage teens were indicative of widespread sexual abuse. And this part of the ruling, this rejection of Texas' logic that where there's smoke, there's fire and that therefore, the state and the judge need to err on the side of making sure the children are protected, this might be the grounds where the appeals court itself could be vulnerable to reversal by a higher Texas court.

NORRIS: Now wait, I'm trying to understand this, because it sounds like the state of Texas was arguing that the polygamous ranch in El Dorado was essentially one household, and that that gave the state the authority to remove all the children, even though they lived in different buildings.

GOODWYN: Right. They had to come up with a way to do this. The court rejected that logic. It was a complete reputation of the state's action to seize the children and state's argument about why that was necessary. The state says the FLDS have a culture of marrying underage teens to older men. Texas says the proof of that is the pregnant underage teens and the underage mothers that the state has in custody. Now, for Texas and for the state judge, those teens were more than enough proof, but the appeals court said no, the state had to prove each individual child was in immediate danger, and if the state couldn't prove that, then the children go back.

NORRIS: And do they just go back and forget this all happened? Is it all over?

GOODWYN: Who knows? It's all up in the air now. I would be surprised if Child Protective Services does not appeal this ruling to the State Supreme Court. There was a lot of backlash when Texas raided the ranch and seized all the children, but now you're going to get the flipside of this backlash. It's going to be child welfare advocates around the country who are going to come unglued, and we'll soon find out if Texas is going to appeal. If it doesn't, the children go back to their mothers inside of two weeks' time.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Wade Goodwyn.

Wade, thank you so much.

GOODWYN: My pleasure.

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