More than 400 children taken from a polygamist sect's ranch two months ago began returning to the arms of their tearful parents Monday, hours after a judge bowed to a state Supreme Court ruling that the seizure was not justified.
"It's just great day," said Nancy Dockstader, whose chin quivered and eyes filled with tears as she embraced her 9-year-old daughter, Amy, outside a foster-care center in Gonzales, about 65 miles east of San Antonio. "We're so grateful."
Amid the reunions, an elder in the polygamist group said church policy going forward will be to forbid any girl to marry who is not old enough to legally consent in the state where she lives.
When Texas officials took the sect's children into custody, they said the teachings of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints pushed underage girls into marriage and sex.
Willie Jessop, a church leader, said the church had been widely misunderstood. But he said the church will not sanction marriages of underage girls and will counsel members against such unions.
Jessop insisted marriages within the church had always been consensual.
A district judge earlier Monday brought an end to one of the nation's largest ever custody cases by signing an order allowing the children to leave foster care. Children began returning to their parents hours later.
Judge Barbara Walther responded to a state Supreme Court ruling last week by signing an order that cleared the children to be released from foster care. Walther allowed parents to begin picking up their children Monday, ending one of the nation's largest child-custody cases.
Dockstader's daughter and four other children were among the roughly 430 children ordered released after two months in state custody, much of it spent in foster care centers. Because siblings were separated at facilities hundreds of miles apart, it will probably take several days for all the families to be reunited.
Dockstader and her husband, James, were headed to Corpus Christi and to Amarillo to pick up their other children. "We'll get the rest of them," said Dockstader, who was clad in a teal prairie dress and clinging to Amy, who wore a matching dress.
Judge sets conditions
Walther's order requires the parents to stay in Texas, to attend parenting classes and to allow the children to be examined as part of any abuse investigation.
But it does not put restrictions on the children's fathers, require that the parents renounce polygamy or force them to leave the Yearning For Zion Ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Child Protective Services removed all the children from the ranch after an April 3 raid prompted by calls to a domestic abuse hot line that purportedly came from a 16-year-old mother who was being abused by her middle-age husband. The calls are now being investigated as a hoax, but authorities contended all the children were at risk because church teachings pushed underage girls into marriage and sex.
The church has denied any children were abused, and members have said they are being persecuted for their religion, which believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven.
Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for the child-protection agency, said authorities still have concerns about the children's safety, and the investigation into possible abuse would continue.
The Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed an appeals court ruling that reversed Walther's decision in April putting all children from the ranch into foster case.
The high court and the appeals court rejected the state's argument that all the children were in immediate danger from what it said was sexual abuse of teenage girls at the ranch.
Court sides with polygamists
The Third Court of Appeals ruled that the state failed to show that any more than five of the teenage girls were being sexually abused, and had offered no evidence of sexual or physical abuse against the other children.
Half the children sent to foster care were no older than 5.
All the children, including any underage mothers, will be allowed to go back to their parents, though it's possible some children's attorneys or child-protection officials could pursue further action in individual cases.
It's not clear how many might return to the ranch right away. Many of the parents have purchased or rented homes in Amarillo, San Antonio and other places around the state.
Rod Parker, a spokesman for the FLDS church, said some of the attorneys have advised parents to stay away from the ranch for now, but most families want to return to the ranch so the children can continue the education they were getting at the sect's schoolhouse before the raid.
Walther's order does not end a separate criminal investigation. Texas authorities last week collected DNA from jailed FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs as part of investigation into underage sex with girls, ages 12 to 15. He has been convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape and is jail in Arizona awaiting trial on separate charges.
The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.