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Texas to return 12 kids to polygamist parents

Texas child welfare authorities agreed Friday to reunite 12 children from a West Texas polygamist sect with their parents until the state Supreme Court rules on the custody case.
ADDITION Polygamist Retreat
Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — including Esther Jessop Barlow, right, and Monica Sue Jessop, center, each with five children in custody — smile Thursday after a bystander in San Angelo, Texas, told them the news of a court ruling in their favor. Lm Otero / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Texas child welfare authorities agreed Friday to reunite 12 children of the West Texas polygamist sect with their parents until the state Supreme Court rules on the custody case.

Teresa Kelly, a spokeswoman for the parents' lawyer, said Child Protective Services agreed to allow the parents to live with their children in the San Antonio area under state supervision. The children are from three sect families.  

Under the agreement, the families cannot return to the Yearning For Zion ranch, where they lived before the raid.

Lori Jessop cried when she and her husband, Joseph, were reunited with their daughter and two sons.

"The little boy just grabbed for his daddy," when CPS workers handed him over, said their attorney Rene Haas.

An appeals court ruled Thursday that the child welfare agency was wrong to seize more than 440 children from a ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The state appealed that ruling to the Texas Supreme Court on Friday.

CPS said it took the children into foster care because the sect pushes girls into underage marriage and sex and raises the boys to be perpetrators.

"This case is about adult men commanding sex from underage children; about women knowingly condoning and allowing sexual abuse of underage children; about the need for the department to take action under difficult, time-sensitive and unprecedented circumstances to protect children on an emergency basis," the state agency said in its appeal.

Thursday's ruling technically applies only to the 38 mothers who filed the complaint, but it was broad enough to cover nearly every child swept up in the April raid on the Eldorado ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

CPS said the appellate court overstepped in its ruling because the lower court had discretion in the custody case.

In the appeal, CPS cited as "documented" sexual abuse a statement from a girl who said she knew a 16-year-old who is married with a 5-month-old baby; and a statement from another girl that "Uncle Merrill" decides who and when she will marry. The state also cited five underage pregnant girls.

Sorting out relations
The agency also said it can't return 124 children to the mothers who filed the complaint against the state because the agency can't sort out which children belong to which parent.

State-ordered DNA test results are not expected back for at least another week, the agency said.

"The department is not in a position to properly identify the correct mothers or fathers at this time," CPS said in its appeal.

The agency accused parents of being uncooperative and not providing proper identification — though in dozens of individual custody hearings this week, parents provided state-issued birth certificates. Other sect members mistakenly believed to be minors also provided drivers' licenses as proof of their age.

The state conceded this week that at least 15 of the 31 mothers they held in foster care as minors were actually adults; one is 27.

FLDS spokesman Rod Parker said the CPS appeal was no surprise "although one would hope that at some point they would realize the futility."

The parents were prepared for extended legal wrangling, he said.

"They're hopeful to get on with their lives, but in reality, they understand," he said.

The FLDS, which teaches that polygamy brings glorification in heaven, denies allegations by child-welfare officials that church officials pressure girls into underage spiritual marriages with older men.

The Third Court of Appeals said the state acted hastily — especially with regard to the boys and younger girls who were removed. Half the youngsters taken from the ranch were 5 or younger.

"Even if one views the FLDS belief system as creating a danger of sexual abuse by grooming boys to be perpetrators of sexual abuse and raising girls to be victims of sexual abuse ... there is no evidence that this danger is 'immediate' or 'urgent,"' the court said.

"Evidence that children raised in this particular environment may someday have their physical health and safety threatened is not evidence that the danger is imminent enough to warrant invoking the extreme measure of immediate removal," the court said.

Hot-line call triggered raid
The children were taken into custody more than six weeks ago after someone called a hot line claiming to be a pregnant, abused teenage wife. The girl has not been found and authorities are investigating whether the calls were a hoax.

Five judges in San Angelo, about 40 miles north of Eldorado, had been holding hearings on what the parents must do to regain custody when the appellate decision was issued. Those hearings were suspended after the ruling Thursday.

The youngsters are in foster homes all over the sprawling state, with some brothers or sisters separated by as much as 600 miles.