Judge: Return Children to Polygamist Parents

A West Texas judge has ordered all of the children seized by the state from a polygamist group to be returned to their parents. But the order doesn't end the standoff between Texas child welfare officials and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The reunions have begun of families from a polygamous group in Texas. A West Texas judge had ordered all of the children - more than 400 - released from state custody and returned to their parents. That's after two court rulings, which found of the state did not have enough evidence to justify seizing the entire group of children.

As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports from San Angelo, Texas, today's order does not end the standoff between Texas child welfare officials and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

WADE GOODWYN: It was a day of sweet vindication for Warren Jeffs' chosen people. In the last two weeks, Texas courts came to their aid and this morning, trial judge Barbara Walther threw in the towel and ordered all of the children returned. But outsider the courthouse in San Angelo, FLDS leader Willie Jessop did not sound all that victorious.

Mr. WILLY JESSOP (Leader, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints): We wish there was a better order, but, hey, it gets the children and the mothers back, so we'll take it.

GOODWYN: If there's a hint in Willie Jessop's statement of the multiple self-interests at work inside these large FLDS families, that's because the group is still very much under assault by the state of Texas. Judge Walther gave the children back, but she also allowed Texas child welfare officials the authority to continue their ongoing investigation. The adults must identify themselves as parents to each particular child, allow themselves to be fingerprinted and the parent and child to be photographed.

The FLDS has a tradition of hiding its family histories from the state. Walther's order allows investigators to continue looking very closely at them for the very first time.

Ms. MARLEIGH MEISNER (Spokeswoman, Texas Child Protective Services): We have concerns regarding these children and that's why our investigation continues, and it will continue until the investigation is complete.

GOODWYN: Marleigh Meisner is with Texas Child Protective Services. While the polygamists won a vital battle to get their children returned to them, their war with the state is very much in progress. Jack Sampson is a law professor at the University of Texas.

Professor JACK SAMPSON (Family Law, University of Texas): (Unintelligible) reason an abuse and neglect case is very difficult to talk about victory at any time until there's a final order.

GOODWYN: And there's also the ongoing criminal investigation by the Texas Rangers. While the children have been ordered by the judge to remain in Texas, the fathers will be allowed to leave. If not everybody is happy with the order, two groups are ecstatic - mothers and children. Julie Balovich represents seven FLDS mothers. She's spoken to each one and they are over the moon.

Ms. JULIE BALOVICH (Staff Attorney, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid): The mothers are so grateful and so excited to see their children. It's going to be a very emotional time for them. This couldn't have come at a moment - she's saying we're ready for these children to be home with their mothers.

GOODWYN: All of the FLDS children, even the pregnant underage teens and underage moms, will be sent back to the Yearning for Zion Ranch immediately.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, San Angelo.

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