Authorities in the western U.S. state of Texas are preparing to return children to their parents in a polygamous sect, following a ruling by the state supreme court that the state overstepped its authority in taking the more than 450 children from their home. VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston.
State officials say they are disappointed in the court ruling, but that they will begin taking steps to comply. Members of the sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (FLDS) are celebrating the ruling and criticizing what they call an illegal action by the state, which they say targeted their religion.
Church elder Willie Jessop says the court ruling will reunite many small children with parents they have not seen for several weeks.
"It will be a great, great afternoon or day when there are fathers and mothers hugging little children that were ripped away from them," he said.
The Texas Supreme Court ruling upholds an appeals court ruling from May 22 that the state did not have sufficient evidence of child abuse to take away every child living at the FLDS ranch in west Texas. State officials say they took action to protect teenage girls who, they said, were at risk of sexual abuse by older men. But, when authorities raided the sect's ranch on April 3, they took all the children found there. The children are now dispersed around the state in foster care homes.
Attorneys representing the FLDS families argued that the state had overstepped its authority by conducting the raid and taking away all the children, even though the evidence of abuse cited by authorities applied only to a few of the underage girls. The court ruling applies directly to 126 children, but officials say it is likely to apply to most, if not all of the children.
Members of the polygamous sect and their attorneys have also questioned the basis for the raid on the ranch, where church members live in a communal atmosphere, isolated from neighbors. State officials obtained a warrant based on a telephone call they said came from a 16-year-old girl at the ranch, who claimed she had been sexually abused. But officials have failed to produce this girl and admit that the call may have been a hoax.
Texas Child Protection Services is not dropping the investigation of abuse at the FLDS ranch, and legal experts say the court's ruling could allow authorities to monitor child welfare at the ranch. Investigators have taken DNA tests to determine the parentage of some small children whose mothers may have been under the legal age for marriage at the time they were pregnant.
Several former members of the FLDS sect from Arizona have testified that men routinely take underage girls as wives, and that both the women and children living in such communities are intimidated and indoctrinated to keep quiet about abuses.
State officials are trying to establish the birth dates and parentage of all the children, using the DNA evidence as well as documents seized during the April raid. The FLDS is an offshoot of the much larger Mormon Church, which also allowed polygamy when it was founded in the early part of the 19th century. The church banned polygamy over a century ago, however, and does not recognize the sects, like the FLDS, that continue with the practice.