AUSTIN (CN) – The Texas Supreme Court ordered the state to return the 468 children taken from a polygamist sect’s ranch in Eldorado, ruling that their removal “was not warranted.”
The decision backs a state appellate court’s finding that the state overstepped its authority in removing children from the Yearning for Zion ranch, run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Acting on a March 29 distress call from an alleged 16-year-old girl named Sarah, who reported being physically and sexually abused, the Texas Department of Family Protective Services raided the Eldorado compound, removed the children without a court order and placed them with foster families, launching the largest child-custody case in U.S. history. The department never located Sarah.
The state’s action prompted 38 FLDS mothers to fight for custody of their 126 children.
The state argued that the abuse allegations warranted the immediate removal of children, because the church sanctions marriages of older men to younger women, including teens. The department’s investigation revealed that at least 20 females became pregnant between the ages of 13 and 17, five of whom are still minors. The department’s lead investigator claimed the church’s “pervasive belief system” groomed boys to be perpetrators of sexual abuse and girls to be victims.
But the justices echoed the lower court’s conclusion that the state lacked concrete evidence to back up the allegations of abuse.
The ruling does not name all 468 children, but would apply to all children taken under these circumstances.
Justices O’Neill, Johnson and Willett dissented in part, saying the state was justified in taking the prepubescent girls.