Texas court rules against seizure at sect ranch

SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) - A Texas appeals court said yesterday 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 3rd 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 asserted there was 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.

Rod Parker, a spokesman for Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), which runs the ranch in Eldorado, said sect members feel validated, having argued from the beginning 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.

“It’s a great day for Texas justice. This was the right decision,” said Miss Balovich, who was joined by several smiling mothers who declined to comment outside the courthouse.

Every child at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado was taken into state custody more than six weeks ago, after Child Protective Services (CPS) officials argued that FLDS members 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 5 and younger.

The appeals court said the state was wrong to consider the entire ranch as an individual household and that the state couldn’t take all the children from a community on the notion that some parents in the community might be abusers.

“The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the department’s witnesses, by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger,” the court said in its ruling.

The court said that although five girls had become pregnant at age 15 or 16, the state gave no evidence about the circumstances of the pregnancies. It noted that minors as young as 16 can wed in Texas with parental consent, and even younger children can marry if a court approves it.

Miss Balovich said the appeals court “has stood up for the legal rights of these families and given these mothers hope that their families will be brought back together.”

CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said department attorneys had just received the ruling and would make any decision about an appeal later.

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