Court says state didn't prove sect children in danger
By Lisa Sandberg and Terri Langford: Express-News
SAN ANGELO — An appeals court ruled Thursday that the state had no right to seize hundreds of children from a polygamous religious sect because it failed to prove they were in immediate danger of abuse.
The decision halted ongoing custody hearings and raised the possibility of family reunions.
• IMMEDIATE EFFECT: Ongoing custody hearings halted, other court pleadings by sect parents bolstered.
• WHAT'S NEXT: The state could appeal, or the order removing the children could be narrowed to apply only to girls who have reached puberty.
“Hurray. Praise the Lord!” said Sarah Barlow, 45, the mother of two children in foster care. “We're grateful for this.”
But it wasn't immediately clear how soon the children, now scattered in foster care across the state, might return to the custody of their parents, followers of a breakaway Mormon sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The ruling orders state District Judge Barbara Walther, who approved the mass removal from parental custody, to rescind her order.
Observers said it was possible that Walther could amend her original order, possibly to ensure that post-pubescent girls remain in state care.
The appeals court ruling was a bitter blow to Child Protective Services, whose investigators accompanied law officers on a weeklong raid and search of the ranch outside Eldorado beginning April 3.
“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,” it said in part.
As they absorbed the ruling on the lawn of the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, several mothers said they were uncertain about their next move.