Families separated by raid on sect are reunited

Texas judge orders release of 430 children who spent two months in state custody

June 03, 2008|By Nicholas Riccardi | Nicholas Riccardi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DENVER - A Texas judge allowed parents yesterday to begin retrieving more than 400 children taken by the state during a raid on a polygamist sect's compound in April.

District Judge Barbara Walther issued the order after the state Supreme Court ruling last week that found Texas authorities had overreached when they moved the children into protective custody.

On Friday, Walther refused to sign an agreement between the state and lawyers for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that would have provided for the children's release. She said it did not provide enough safeguards against the families fleeing the state.

As lawyers prepared for more appeals, Walther issued her new order requiring parents to submit to fingerprinting and to be photographed as they pick up their children, and to attend parenting classes. Families must agree to unannounced visits from social workers and must stay in Texas.

The first families began collecting their children yesterday afternoon. But the process was expected to take several days as parents travel to group homes and foster care facilities where the children have been living.

"We're happy that now we're going to start seeing family reunions happen," said Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which won the case before the Supreme Court on behalf of 38 of the sect's mothers. "This is a good day."

At the High Sky Children's Ranch in Midland, where 15 girls from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ages 11 to 17, had been staying, the children donned identical navy blue dresses they had sewn.

"This is their way of celebrating," said Jackie Carter, executive director of the shelter. "They're all hugging and happy, but I'm sad because I'm going to miss them."

At an emergency shelter in Liverpool, near Houston, where 24 small children were held - the oldest was 10 - some of the youngest children cried at the separation from shelter workers.

The state is continuing to contest custody of the children on a case by case basis. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said in a statement that it was pleased with the order.

"It allows the children to be returned safely to their families and caregivers in a prompt and orderly manner," the department said. "Second, the court's order ensures that the state's investigation of abuse and neglect continues with strong provisions in place to prevent interference and ensure compliance by the parents. The safety of these children remains our only goal in this case."

The state had argued that all children at the Yearning for Zion ranch outside the West Texas hamlet of El Dorado were at risk because of the sect's belief in polygamous, underage marriage. The state Supreme Court said that alone was not reason enough to separate the children from their parents.

The sect long ago broke from the mainstream Mormon Church, which banned polygamy in 1890. It has about 10,000 members, mostly along the Utah-Arizona border. Its spiritual leader, Warren Jeffs, is serving five years to life after being convicted last year in Utah of forcing a 13-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old cousin.

Willie Jessop, a church official who spoke to reporters at the courthouse in San Angelo, Texas, said the judge's ruling was more restrictive than it needed to be.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who has followed the case closely, said Walther's order showed that the judge and the state did not consider the custody question settled.

"It's a lot stricter than a lot of people thought it would be," Tobias said. "There had to be some sort of movement away from this mass taking of children, but I don't know that it's a wholesale victory for the FLDS."

Nicholas Riccardi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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