Appeals Court Rules Against Texas in Polygamy Case

A Texas state court of appeals ruled Thursday afternoon that the state of Texas had no right to seize more than 400 children from a polygamist ranch in Eldorado, in the western part of the state, because there was not sufficient proof that they were in immediate danger.

The ruling asserted that the state’s child protection agency acted hastily in removing the children from the Yearning for Zion ranch in April and did not make a reasonable effort “to ascertain if some measure short of removal and/or separation from parents would have eliminated the risk” of abuse toward the children of 48 mothers who filed the suit. The district court was ordered to remove its restraining order giving the state custody of those children, but it was not immediately clear how the hundreds of other children, now in foster care, would be affected.

At news conference in San Angelo, the closest city to Eldorado, a lawyer for the sect said it was not sure when the families would be reunited, and that the team was reviewing the next legal steps in the process.

Lawyers for the state did not immediately respond to the ruling.According to the court, the state did not establish proper grounds to remove the children from their families, who belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or F.L.D.S. The F.L.D.S. broke off from the mainstream Mormon church after it had disavowed polygamy in 1890.

The agency raided the ranch and the sect’s temple on April 3 after someone had called an abuse hot line and said that she was a 16-year-old child bride being abused by her older husband in the church’s compound. The caller has still not been found.

State agency officials, who have been criticized for their handling of the raid, said taking all the children in the church’s compound were necessary because the culture of the sect led to illegal under-age marriage for girls and acceptance of that practice by boys, a pattern that the state said endangers both sexes.

The children and their mothers, who refused to be separated from them, were initially housed in a former military facility and an entertainment arena in San Angelo. Last month, after two days of often chaotic hearings, a judge in San Angelo ordered that all of the children be placed in Texas foster care facilities.

The court action on Thursday followed a writ of mandamus filed by the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid group — the largest provider of legal aid in the state — and 48 mothers from the sect who were representing their children.

“We’re extremely happy with the ruling,” Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid group, told The Houston Chronicle.

“The way that the courts have ignored the legal rights of these mothers is ridiculous,” Julie Balovich, also of RioGrande, added. “It was about time a court stood up and said that what has been happening to these families is wrong.”

The state made its case in an earlier court hearing. “There is a culture of young girls being pregnant by old men,” said Angie Voss, an investigator with Child Protective Services, who participated in the raid and interviewed girls at the ranch. Ms. Voss testified that she had found evidence that “more than 20 girls, some of whom are now adults, have conceived or given birth under the age of 16 or 17.”

Many of the families affected by the raid are related and share last names like Jeffs, which is also the name of the F.L.D.S. leader, Warren S. Jeffs, who was convicted last year on a rape charge for imposing marriage between an under-age girl and older man in Utah.

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