Texas Court Agrees Children Must Be Returned

The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that polygamist sect children at the heart of an ongoing controversy in that state should be returned to parents. The more than 400 children were taken from the Yearning For Zion Ranch weeks ago amid charges of underage sex at the ranch. A lower court says welfare officials were wrong to take the children from their parents.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Noah Adams.

This afternoon, the highest court in Texas ruled that some children from a polygamous sect should be returned to their parents. Last month, more than 400 children were taken into state custody after allegations of sexual abuse. Now the State Supreme Court has agreed with the lower court decision, finding that Texas Child Welfare officials over stepped their authority.

We're joined now by NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Barbara, tell us what the ruling says in Texas.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Well, essentially, the ruling, the Supreme Court ruling affirmed the appellate court decision. First, it found that the state basically over-reached. Well there may have been a danger to the children - and many of these, more than 400 kids who were removed from the compound were girls - the Supreme Court found that the department moved too quickly, and that the trial judge in affirming this also moved too quickly to take away all of the children. The court found that the state could have found other approaches to protecting the kids without taking the really drastic step of removing all of them from their mothers. So, for example, the department could have removed the fathers from the households or made sure that the kids weren't taken away out of geographic boundaries until the investigation was complete. Also, the Supreme Court found that there was no evidence that the boys or the girls who had not yet reached puberty were in any danger whatsoever. So it shouldn't have removed them from their mothers.

ADAMS: Now it sounds like a big victory - the parents of some of the children have worked very hard to get their kids back - a big victory for them.

HAGERTY: It is a big victory for them, although I have to say that this opinion is a little bit unclear about what happens next. For example, I've talked to a couple of people, and we're not quite sure whether the kids are immediately returned to their parents. What the ruling says is that the department can do other things to protect the children, and it appears that the lower court should proceed on a case-by-case basis, investigating every claim of abuse. But I'm not sure that they immediately go back to the kids. So let's just look at investigating the abuse on a case-by-case basis. One way to do that is through DNA evidence. Next week, DNA reports come back, and it will show which mother had which child. And from that, the state can kind of determine whether the mother was underage, and thus, abused. And as you know, the Department of Family and Protective Services found that about 20 girls had had babies when they were between 13 and 17 years old. And they want to see if there are more girls in that situation.

ADAMS: Now what is - what are the attorneys for this state saying about what happened?

HAGERTY: Well, I haven't yet talked to the attorneys for the state. I know that they're going to be very, very disappointment - disappointed, I mean. What they said is that they did move in there and move quickly to protect the children, that essentially you have one shot at protecting children in these kinds of cases. And now I'm sure that they're very disappointed that they're not going to be able to do that.

ADAMS: Would there be other children about to be at risk?

HAGERTY: Yes, well, there are. If you'll remember, this case involves 38 mothers and about a 124 - exactly 124 kids. In toto, more than 400 kids were taken from the compound. So that means that there are a lot more mothers and a lot more kids whose cases have yet to be decided.

ADAMS: NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty, thank you.

HAGERTY: You're welcome.

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Court: Polygamist Group's Kids Must Be Returned

The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that child welfare officials must return dozens of children taken last month from a polygamist ranch to their parents.

The court's decision states that the April 3 removal of the children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch outside Eldorado, Texas, "was not warranted," based "on the record before us."

More than 450 children were initially taken into protective custody after an allegation of child sexual abuse at the ranch. The claim was made by a caller who said she was 16 years old and being abused at the complex. But state officials say they have not located the girl, and there is growing evidence the call was a hoax.

The ruling upholds a lower court decision involving 139 children whose 41 mothers had gone to court to regain custody. The Texas justices noted that their ruling does not address issues other than immediate custody, including "parental rights and the State's interest in protecting children."

The decision also states that Texas authorities have other protective options that don't require removing children from their homes.

The custody decision is expected to affect the status of 300 other children who have been placed in foster care throughout the state. It's not clear when any of the children will rejoin their parents.

The Yearning for Zion Ranch is a settlement of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a polygamist group based in twin towns on the Utah-Arizona border. The group's "prophet," Warren Jeffs, is serving consecutive prison terms of five years-to-life for facilitating rape. His case involves the "spiritual" marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old first cousin. Former members of the FLDS group say the faith forces underage girls into marriages with older men.

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