Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints mothers walk to courthouse for custody hearing Thursday.AP photo
SAN ANGELO, Texas — A Texas appeals court said Thursday that the state had no right to take more than 400 children from a polygamist sect’s ranch, a ruling that could unravel one of the biggest child-custody cases in U.S. history.
The Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled that the state offered “legally and factually insufficient” grounds for the “extreme” measure of removing all children from the ranch, from babies to teenagers.
The state never provided evidence that the children were in any immediate danger, the only grounds in Texas law for taking children from their parents without court approval, the appeals court said.
It also failed to show evidence that more than five of the teenage girls were being sexually abused, and never alleged any sexual or physical abuse against the other children, the court said.
It was not immediately clear whether the children scattered across foster facilities statewide might soon be reunited with parents. The ruling gave Texas District Judge Barbara Walther 10 days to vacate her custody order, and the state could appeal.
FLDS spokesman Rod Parker said sect members feel validated, having argued from the beginning that they were being persecuted for their beliefs.
“They’re very thrilled. They’re looking forward to seeing the children returned,” he said.
The appellate decision technically applies only to 38 of the roughly 200 parents who challenged the seizure. But their lawyer, Julie Balovich of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said she expected attorneys for all the other parents to seek to join the ruling.
Every child at the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado was taken into state custody more than six weeks ago, after Child Protective Services officials argued that members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints pushed underage girls into marriage and sex and groomed boys to become adult perpetrators. Only a few dozen of the roughly 440 children seized are teenage girls; half were under 5.