A Texas appeals court ruled Thursday that the state had no right to take more than 400 children from a polygamist ranch. The court conceded that some underage teens may have been sexually abused, but that the state did not prove that all the removals of children from their parents were justified.
The ruling came as a major surprise; it could mean the children are returned to their parents within 10 days.
The appeals court's ruling was a decisive legal victory for the families of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The court slapped down State District Judge Barbara Walther, a West Texas Republican who ordered the children seized.
Walther had ruled that there was ample evidence, in the guise of the numerous underage pregnant teens in state custody, to suspect that the FLDS promoted underage marriage and sexual abuse. But lawyers representing 38 FLDS mothers argued that Texas had produced no evidence that every one of the seized children was in jeopardy of sexual abuse.
Child welfare officials said they were mystified by the appeals court's ruling, saying that the department had "removed children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch after finding a pervasive pattern of sexual abuse."
Child welfare officials who visited the ranch "revealed a pattern of underage girls being 'spiritually united' with older men and having children with the men," the agency said.
The agency issued a statement that read in part:
An examination of evidence found at the ranch further confirmed the pervasive pattern of sexual abuse. A Bishop's Record detailing family relationships listed 13 girls who were ages 16 and 17, including nine living at the YFZ Ranch. All nine of the girls living at the ranch were listed as wives in the document, which was entered into evidence during the 14-day hearing in San Angelo.
Unless Texas' Child Protective Services appeals to the Texas Supreme Court, the FLDS children will be returned to their mothers in 10 days.