Some 450 children who were removed from the Yearning for Zion ranch, run by a polygamous sect in east Texas, will be returning home soon – some possibly as early as Monday. In a tentative agreement released in court Friday, parents who pledge to take parenting classes and remain in Texas can get their children back. The agreement followed a ruling by the Supreme Court of Texas on Thursday that the children should be reunited with their parents. The ruling doesn't stop the state's ongoing investigations into alleged abuse charges perpetrated by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), but it will make continuing them more difficult,experts say.
The courts' actions also will force the state's Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to change the family-service plans – the details of what parents must do to reunite with their children – that some parents had already agreed to.
"One of the reasons [DFPS] tried to remove all the children from the ranch is because it's very difficult to investigate [abuse charges] when the child's in the home, and they're not going to want to go through this again – remove the children from the homes to have them sent back," says Ellen Marrus, co-director of the Center for Children, Law & Policy at the University of Houston. "So the investigation will probably end."
DFPS officials removed 468 children from the FLDS's 1,691-acre ranch near Eldorado, Texas, in early April. Two weeks later, state District Judge Barbara Walther ruled that there was evidence to indicate the children were at risk of sexual abuse if they returned to the ranch. Instead, she ordered that the children be sent to foster care facilities around the state.
The sect is known to sanction "spiritual marriages" of underage girls, usually to older men who already have one wife or more. The state originally said 30 of the 53 girls in custody believed to be minors (some girls gave conflicting accounts of their ages), either had children, were pregnant, or both. That number has since been lowered to about a dozen young women.
Last week, an appeals court reversed the earlier ruling. It found that the DFPS illegally removed the children from their homes and that they should be immediately returned. On Thursday, the state Supreme Court agreed. "On the record before us, removal of the children was not warranted," the 6-to-3 majority said.
The parents of the children were overjoyed by Thursday's decision, their attorneys said.
"These mothers have never given up their fight to bring their families back together," says Kevin Dietz, the lead attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which filed the petition with the appeals court on behalf of 38 FLDS mothers. "TRLA remains dedicated to working with the courts and [DFPS] to do what is in the best interest of these children. Right now, that means reuniting these families."
The DFPS and 51st District Court were in the process of holding hearings on the family-service plans when the appeals court ruled against them last week. Most of the plans called for the mothers to participate in counseling for sexual and physical abuse and participate in job training or become employed. The plans also provided details on where the family would live and how the children would be protected from potential sexual abuse. The plans also called for educational and psychological assessments of the children.
The hearings that had been scheduled for this week were postponed, but several plans had been agreed to by both the court and parent. It is not clear how those will be enacted now – or how the others will move forward.
"They would be revised because those assumed that the [DFPS] had custody, so they will have to be revised," says Scott McCown, a retired Texas state judge and current director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.
Some experts say the massive child-custody case may turn out the way the Arizona investigation into the polygamous community of Short Creek did in 1953 – with all the children returned to the sect and all the charges against the adults dropped.
But it is possible that some of the most egregious cases may be prosecuted. The local district attorney and the state attorney general's office say they are still considering criminal charges against some of the FLDS members.
"We had a few mothers who already signed [family service plans]," says Cynthia Martinez, communications director for TRLA. "The Supreme Court gave DFPS some authority to set some guidelines for monitoring where the parents live, as well as other things, so that is going to have to be worked out."
"The Supreme Court didn't say there wasn't some evidence against these parents and to forget the entire case," Mr. McCown says. "Instead, it said there was some evidence, there is concern – and some orders, short of removal of the children, are appropriate."
It will be up to the DFPS, he and other experts say, to file removal orders with the court in each specific case.
"We are disappointed, but we understand and respect the court's decision," Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for DFPS, says in a statement. "We have one purpose in this case – to protect children.... We will continue to prepare for the prompt and orderly reunification of these children with their families. We also will work with the district court to ensure the safety of the children and that all of our actions conform with the decision of the Texas Supreme Court."