A judge in San Angelo, Texas has ordered state authorities to return more than 440 children to their parents, who belong to a polygamous sect based at a west Texas ranch. Authorities raided the compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, in April, after what they said was a tip about potential child abuse. VOA's Greg Flakus has more from Kerrville, Texas.
Judge Barbara Walther has told Texas Child Protection Services to return the children to the custody of their parents. The order follows a ruling by the Texas Supreme Court that said the state overstepped its authority in seizing the children. Implementation of the court's decision was delayed over the weekend as state authorities sought access to the children in order to ensure their safety and to continue their investigation of alleged sexual abuse of minors at the ranch where the FLDS members live a communal lifestyle isolated from neighbors.
Monday's court order does allow state officials access to the ranch to visit the children and requires parents from the group to take parenting classes, but the judge made no distinction between children who may have been victims of abuse and those who were not, according to Texas Child Protection Services Spokesperson Marleigh Meisner.
"The court order reads that every single child will be returned to their parents' care," said said Meisner. "I do not know if there will be specific situations for those children or for any of the children. It is pretty broad court order, but we certainly will be looking at each case individually."
Meisner told reporters her agency will continue its investigation and will work within the limits set by the court order to monitor the situation at the FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch.
Meisner: "The court order explicitly implies that we will be allowed access to whatever home or dwelling these children are in and so we certainly anticipate that they will be cooperative with our department."
Reporter: "What if they are not?"
Meisner: "If they are not then we will have to obtain a court order from the judge regarding that."
Texas authorities raided the FLDS ranch on April third following what they initially described as a telephone call from a 16-year-old girl inside the compound who claimed she had been sexually abused by older men. Witnesses from FLDS communities in other states have said such abuse of underage girls by church elders is common and Texas officials say they took the extraordinary step of removing all the children in order to prevent any abuse.
But attorneys representing FLDS members say the real purpose may have been to disrupt a religion that is far from the mainstream. They point out that state officials never were able to produce the girl who allegedly made the call and state officials admit that the call may have been a hoax. A state appeals court ruled on May 22 that the state overstepped its authority in removing all the children and the state Supreme Court last week upheld that ruling.