In a crushing blow to the state's massive seizure of children from a polygamist sect's ranch, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that child welfare officials overstepped their authority and the children should go back to their parents.
The high court affirmed a decision by an appellate court last week, saying Child Protective Services failed to show an immediate danger to the more than 400 children swept up from the Yearning For Zion Ranch nearly two months ago.
"On the record before us, removal of the children was not warranted," the justices said in their ruling issued in Austin.
The high court let stand the appellate court's order that Texas District Judge Barbara Walther return the children from foster care to their parents. It's not clear how soon that may happen, but the appellate court ordered her to do it within a reasonable time period.
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.
Every child at the ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the west Texas town of Eldorado was removed; half were 5 or younger.
'We have hope'
CPS officials said they were disappointed by the ruling but would take immediate steps to comply.
"We are disappointed, but we understand and respect the court's decision," the agency said in a written statement.
FLDS elder Willie Jessop said parents were excited about the court's decision but would remain apprehensive until they get their children back.
"We're just looking forward to when little children can be in the arms of their parents," he said. "Until you have your children in your hands, there's no relief. But we have hope."
Standing outside the Texas Supreme Court building with attorneys for the families, Martha Emack, mother of a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old, echoed that sentiment.
"I'm happy (when) all the children are back to their mothers and we're home," said Emack, whose children have been staying at an Austin children's shelter.
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.
Roughly 430 children are now in foster care after two births, numerous reclassifications of adult women initially held as minors and a handful of agreements allowing parents to keep custody while the Supreme Court considered the case.
The ruling does not force CPS to end its involvement with FLDS parents, which runs the ranch in Eldorado, however.
The justices said child welfare officials can take numerous actions to protect children short of separating them from their parents and placing them in foster care and that Walther may still put restrictions on the children and parents to address concerns that they may flee once reunited.
FLDS members teach that polygamy brings glorification in heaven. It is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.
Texas officials claimed at one point that there were 31 teenage girls at the ranch who were pregnant or had been pregnant, but later conceded that about half of those mothers, if not more, were adults. One was 27.
Under Texas law, children can be taken from their parents if there's a danger to their physical safety, an urgent need for protection and if officials made a reasonable effort to keep the children in their homes. The high court agreed with the appellate court that the seizures fell short of that standard.