Court rules removal of children was not warranted

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Team coverageThere was a huge victory in Texas for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) families torn apart in last month's raid on the YFZ Ranch. The Texas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that child-protection workers had no authority to seize the children.

The order from the state Supreme Court in Austin seems to mean the children will immediately be returned to their parents; although it's possible there will be more legal twists and turns before this is over.

The justices upheld last week's appeals court decision, finding there was insufficient evidence of abuse or of the risk of further abuse.

"On the record before us," the justices wrote, "removal of the children was not warranted."

Susan Hays, an attorney for a 2-year-old girl, said, "The trial court erred in letting the state remove these children based on the evidence presented at the time. So the trial court will now vacate that order. The children should be able to return home; however, the trial court still has broad powers under the family code to protect these children while they are the subject of an ongoing abuse investigation."

AP Photo/LM Otero
AP Photo/LM Otero

Those powers could include such things as court orders to remove alleged perpetrators from the children's homes. The parents could also be restricted to keeping the children within certain geographical boundaries, let's say 100 miles from their homes.

After the ruling, FLDS members immediately asked for a return of the children. "I'm just here to say that I'm happy as soon as all the children are back to their mothers and we're back home," said Martha Enack, mother of two.

FLDS member Willie Jessop said, "There has been a catastrophic physical and emotional trauma to these families, permanent damage that will be left on them for a lifetime."

But Utah's Attorney General worries about the result. "The key, the thing that makes you sick to your stomach right now, is if those kids go back, who's going to protect the girls who have been forced to marry older men? That is a proven fact. It was proven in Warren Jeffs' case," Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said.

The ruling shatters one of the largest child-custody cases in U.S. history. State officials said the removals were necessary to end a cycle of sexual abuse at the ranch in which teenage girls were forced to marry and have sex with older men, but parents denied any abuse and said they were being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

The case before the court technically only applies to 124 children of the 38 mothers who filed a complaint that prompted the ruling, but it significantly affects nearly all the children since they were removed under identical circumstances.

David Scheck, an attorney for some of the FLDS mothers, said, "The state simply, in this case, went too far, reached too far and grabbed too many children without making the heavy showing that's necessary before you can separate children from their mothers."

"Strictly talking about legal standards, I've always said there was going to be a concern; that if they couldn't prove individual abuse or neglect -- imminent harm, imminent danger -- that they were not going to be able to withstand the legal burden. And that's what the courts have ruled now," Shurtleff said.

Shurtleff says he's concerned that many of the children will be at risk if put back on the ranch because underage marriages are a proven fact. But the attorney general says he also believes most of the adult male perpetrators have left the ranch since the raid took place.

It's not clear how eager those men will be to come back and see their children if, in doing so, they increase their own risk of being arrested and prosecuted.

The children are now in foster-care shelters scattered all across the State of Texas. The Texas Division of Child Protective Services issued a statement saying they're considering their legal options. It's not clear if releases will be immediate or total. The Supreme Court noted the state still has many options for protecting children, as long as they have specific evidence in specific cases.


(The Associated Press contributed to this story. Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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