Court: Texas had no right to take polygamists' children
SAN ANGELO, Texas (CNN) -- The state of Texas should not have removed the more than 460 children it took from a polygamist sect's ranch because it didn't prove they were in "imminent enough" danger, an appeals court ruled Thursday.
In its ruling, the Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals decided in favor of 38 women who had appealed the removals, as well as a decision last month by a district judge that the children will remain in state custody.
"The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the department's witnesses, by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger," the three-judge panel said.
An attorney representing the mothers said the trial court that originally backed the state's seizure of the children has 10 days to vacate its decision. If it doesn't, the appeals court will act, said Julie Balovich of the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
"It is a great day for families in the state of Texas," she said.
The state's Department of Family and Protective Services "did not present any evidence of danger to the physical health or safety of any male children or any female children who had not reached puberty," the judges ruled. Watch how the ruling favors FLDS »
According to the ruling, the mothers said the state should have proved that the children's health or safety was in danger; that there was "an urgent need for protection" that required immediately separating the children from their parents; and that the state made "reasonable efforts" to avoid removing the children.
Because no such proof was presented, the mothers argued, the District Court -- which backed the department's seizure of the children -- "was required to return the children to their parents and abused its discretion by failing to do so."
The ruling does not order the children returned to Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado, Texas, but directs the lower court to vacate its orders granting custody of the women's children to CPS.
"The legislature has required that there be evidence to support a finding that there is a danger to the physical health or safety of the children in question and that the need for protection is urgent and warrants immediate removal," the ruling said.
It concluded, "Evidence that children raised in this particular environment may some day have their physical health and safety threatened is not evidence that the danger is imminent enough to warrant invoking the extreme measure of immediate removal prior to full litigation of the issue."
The children were removed last month from the Yearning for Zion ranch, which is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon offshoot that practices polygamy.
"The way that the courts have ignored the legal rights of these mothers is ridiculous," Balovich said before a news conference. "It was about time a court stood up and said that what has been happening to these families is wrong."
Later, flanked by some of the FLDS mothers represented in the case, Balovich explained that authorities considered YFZ ranch one household, an assertion with which the appeals court did not agree.
"This was the right decision," Balovich said, adding that she and her clients were "ecstatic about this news."
Although the ruling applies only to the 38 mothers and their children, "we believe the reasoning in the court of appeals decision would apply to all children," Balovich said.
The authenticity of the initial abuse reports that focused authorities' attention on the ranch is in question, the court noted in its ruling. Police have alleged that a family shelter crisis line received multiple calls on March 29 and 30 from a caller claiming to be Sarah Jessop Barlow, age 16.
The girl reported that she had an 8-month-old baby and was pregnant again, and that she was married to Dale Barlow, who abused her physically and sexually.
At least one of the telephones used by "Sarah Barlow" to make the calls has been traced back to a Colorado woman. Police have named Rozita Swinton a person of interest in connection with the reports of abuse at the ranch, but she has not been charged, although she faces charges of providing a false report to authorities in a Colorado case.
Court hearings in the FLDS case resumed Monday, with hearings in several courtrooms to accommodate lawyers for the children. The hearings were held so the parties could review "family service plans" dictating the parameters under which FLDS children can regain custody of their children.
FLDS members have denied any physical or sexual abuse takes place, and maintain they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.
The sect's leader, Warren Jeffs, is in a Utah prison after a conviction on charges of being an accomplice to rape in connection with a marriage he performed in 2001. Jeffs also faces trial in Arizona on eight charges including sexual conduct with a minor, incest and conspiracy.