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Children headed home

A Texas judge says members of a polygamist sect can reunite their families.

June 03, 2008|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — A Texas judge Monday allowed parents to begin retrieving more than 400 children who were taken by the state during a raid on a polygamist sect's compound in April.

District Judge Barbara L. Walther issued the order after the state Supreme Court ruling last week that found Texas authorities had overreached when they moved the children into protective custody.

Walther on Friday had refused to sign an agreement between the state and lawyers for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that would have provided for the release of the children. She said it did not provide enough safeguards against the families fleeing the state.

As lawyers prepared for another round of appeals, Walther issued her new order. It requires parents to submit to fingerprinting and to be photographed as they pick up their children, and to attend parenting classes. Families must agree to unannounced visits from social workers and must remain in Texas.

The first families began collecting their children Monday afternoon. But the process was expected to take several days as parents travel to group homes and foster care facilities across the state where the children have been living.

"We're happy that now we're going to start seeing family reunions happen," said Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which won the case before the Supreme Court on behalf of 38 of the sect's mothers. "This is a good day."

The state is continuing to contest custody of the children on a case by case basis. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said in a statement that it was pleased with the order.

"It allows the children to be returned safely to their families and caregivers in a prompt and orderly manner," the department said. "Second, the court's order ensures that the state's investigation of abuse and neglect continues with strong provisions in place to prevent interference and ensure compliance by the parents. The safety of these children remains our only goal in this case."

The state had argued that all children at the Yearning for Zion ranch outside the western Texas hamlet of Eldorado were at risk because of the sect's belief in polygamous, underage marriage.

The state Supreme Court, however, said that alone was not reason enough to separate all the children from their parents.

The sect long ago broke away from the mainstream Mormon Church, which banned polygamy in 1890. It has about 10,000 members, mostly along the Utah-Arizona border. Its spiritual leader, Warren Jeffs, is serving a term of five years to life after being convicted last year in Utah of forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old cousin.

Late Monday, the Associated Press reported that the top sect official at the Texas compound, Willie Jessop, said the church would no longer sanction underage marriages. Jessop said there would be no recognition of unions for people under the legal age of marriage in the state in which they lived, the Associated Press said.

A sect spokesman did not return calls Monday night.

Jessop, who spoke to reporters earlier at the courthouse in San Angelo, Texas, said Walther's ruling was more restrictive than it needed to be.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who has followed the case closely, said Walther's order showed the judge and the state did not consider the custody question settled.

"It's a lot stricter than a lot of people thought it would be," Tobias said. "There had to be some sort of movement away from this mass taking of children, but I don't know that it's a wholesale victory for the FLDS."


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