Court Says Polygamist Kids' Removal Unwarranted Child welfare officials in Texas say they'll take immediate steps to comply with a state Supreme Court ruling that children removed from a polygamist compound be reunited with their parents. The court said welfare officials overstepped their authority.
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Court Says Polygamist Kids' Removal Unwarranted

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Court Says Polygamist Kids' Removal Unwarranted

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Court Says Polygamist Kids' Removal Unwarranted

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

The Texas Supreme Court has upheld a lower court's ruling that the children from a polygamist ranch in that state should not have been removed from their homes.

More than 400 children were taken into protective custody this spring, after Texas officials raided the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The state claimed it had seized more than a dozen pregnant, underage teens. Yesterday, the Texas high court said the state went too far when it removed all of the children.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn has been covering this story since the beginning, and he joins us now. Good morning, Wade.

WADE GOODWYN: Good morning.

SMITH: So what did this ruling say? Does the state of Texas have to return all the children? Can they keep some of the children?

GOODWYN: What the supreme court ruled is that it felt there was not evidence to support removing all of the children. So I think that's the main signal the court wanted to send to the state judge, Barbara Walther in San Angelo, that she went too far and that the boys and prepubescent girls should be returned.

But the court essentially punted back to the trial judge the issue of what to do with the FLDS girls who might be vulnerable to sexual abuse. Here's a key passage of the ruling:

While the district court must vacate the current temporary custody orders it need not do so without granting other appropriate relief to protect the children.

Well, there's wiggle room there. The supreme court doesn't like the trial judge's decision to take all the children, but the court seems to be open to the state seizing some of the children if the evidence supports it.

SMITH: Well, we know from your reporting that this Judge Walther is quite a character, I will say. Do we know what she's going to do?

GOODWYN: That's a good question. I think the court's ruling means that most, if not all the boys and the young girls, the prepubescent girls, are going to go back to their parents, but what about the girls who are 11, 12, 13, 14 years old? That's still going to be up to Walther.

Now how she proceeds is anybody's guess. She could say fine, you don't like the way I'm going about it? All the children can go home. I wash my hands of it. Now it's on your heads. Or she could try to find middle ground. It's up to her.

SMITH: Well, Texas officials argued that if the children were returned, if they are returned, there's going to be a likelihood that maybe some of these families will move out of state, start a new compound, and then the state of Texas can do nothing.

GOODWYN: Well, the FLDS has a history of moving families, and children, and mothers around from state to state. That was what Texas Child Welfare officials were concerned, that the children were going to be moved out, the state of Texas would lose any ability to protect the children. I think Judge Walther agreed with that but the appeals court dissented. They said if there's no immediate danger, they can't be removed. In other words, Texas can't use past FLDS history to predict future FLDS outcomes. I think that's a ruling that's going to infuriate child welfare advocates around the country.

SMITH: Well, this is such a loaded topic, I hesitate even bringing this up. But it seems like there's a difference of opinion between the male judges and the female judges here.

GOODWYN: This is one of the more interesting dynamics. Out of the 13 state judges who've been involved, Judge Walther, the three appeals court judges, and the nine supreme court judges, two are women and eleven are men. The trial judge, a woman, erred on the side of protecting the children. She seized all of them. Then the appeals court, all men, said no to Judge Walther and the state of Texas. They came down on the side of the FLDS parents and against child welfare officials. Then when it got to the supreme court, the court split. Five of the men sided with the FLDS parents, but Judge O'Neal, the one woman, dissented. She wanted the court to stipulate that pubescent girls should be removed for their own protection, and she was able to get two male colleagues to agree with her but she couldn't get a majority. So that's going to go back to the trial judge - a woman - that's going to be the final decider.

SMITH: NPR's Wade Goodwyn will be covering this case for some time, I imagine. Thank you very much.

GOODWYN: My pleasure.

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