RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In a stunning rebuke, an appeals court in Texas has ruled that the state had no right to seize more than 440 children from a polygamist group. The three-judge panel did concede that some underage teens may have been sexually abused, but rejected the state's overall charges, and that could mean a reunion for the children and their parents. From Dallas, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.
WADE GOODWYN: The appeals court 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.
She 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. The appeals court agreement was sweet vindication.
Ms. JULIE BALOVICH (Attorney, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid): We're completely ecstatic. This is a victory for Texas families everywhere.
GOODWYN: Julie Balovich is a lawyer with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, which represents the 38 FLDS mothers who appealed.
Ms. BALOVICH: The state was required to prove that there was physical abuse, that there was evidence that this was an urgent need for protection. All they proved was that the FLDS had a belief that underage marriage was a good thing, but that is not an urgent need for protection under Texas law.
And they were also required to prove every child in this case.
GOODWYN: Child welfare officials said they were mystified by the appeals court's ruling and issued this statement: the department removed children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch after finding a pervasive pattern of sexual abuse. The department's interviews at the ranch revealed a pattern of underage girls being, quote, "spiritually united with older men and having children with those men."
Perhaps no one is better positioned to speak to the state's point of view than Elissa Wall. Wall is the young woman whose testimony last year in Utah, about her forced marriage to her first cousin, put FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs in prison.
Ms. ELISSA WALL (Former Member, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints): I know from personal experience, as a young teenage bride - the tender age of 14, being placed in a situation where I had no control over what was happening to me.
GOODWYN: Elissa Wall says she did everything she knew to stop her arranged marriage. She begged Warren Jeffs not to make her go through with it. She argued she was too young. She pleaded she didn't want to marry her first cousin. She even refused to say I do at her wedding.
For three weeks, she managed to fight off her new husband, but eventually she was forced to have sexual relations.
Ms. WALL: A man who will marry a 14-year-old, 13-year-old, 12-year-old girl is just sickening to me.
GOODWYN: Wall has published a book about her experiences in the FLDS called "Stolen Innocence." Her mother and some of her siblings are still with the group.
Ms. WALL: Women do not have the power to really dictate what happens in their children's life. They may not be able to control the situation, but they do have some small accountability, simply in the fact that this is what they believe in. And it's due to those beliefs that the children are being able to be exploited like they are.
GOODWYN: Unless Texas's Child Protective Services appeals to the Texas Supreme Court, the FLDS children will be returned to their mothers in 10 days. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
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