Families Reunite After Judge's Ruling
By MICHELLE ROBERTS,
[See above website for heartwearming reunion photos]
SAN ANGELO, Texas (June 2) - More than 400 children taken from a
polygamist sect's ranch two months ago began returning to the arms
of their tearful parents Monday, hours after a judge bowed to a
state Supreme Court ruling that the seizure was not justified.
A Texas judge on Monday ordered the return of roughly 430 children
seized from a polygamist sect to their parents. The state's Supreme
Court said Texas Child Protective Services had overreached in taking
custody of the children. "It's just great day," said Nancy
Dockstader, above center.
"It's just great day," said Nancy Dockstader, whose chin quivered
and eyes filled with tears as she embraced her 9-year-old daughter,
Amy, outside a foster-care center in Gonzales, about 65 miles east
of San Antonio. "We're so grateful."
Her daughter and four other children were among the roughly 430
children ordered released after two months in state custody, much of
it spent in foster care centers. Because siblings were separated at
facilities hundreds of miles apart, it will probably take several
days for all the families to be reunited.
Judge Barbara Walther responded to a state Supreme Court ruling last
week by signing an order that cleared the children to be released
from foster care. Walther allowed parents to begin picking up their
children Monday, ending one of the nation's largest child-custody
Dockstader and her husband, James, were headed to Corpus Christi and
to Amarillo to pick up their other children. "We'll get the rest of
them," said Dockstader, who was clad in a teal prairie dress and
clinging to Amy, who wore a matching dress.
Walther's order requires the parents to stay in Texas, to attend
parenting classes and to allow the children to be examined as part
of any abuse investigation.
But it does not put restrictions on the children's fathers, require
that the parents renounce polygamy or force them to leave the
Yearning For Zion Ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Late Monday, elder Willie Jessop said the church won't allow
underage girls to marry. Jessop said the new policy will forbid any
girl to marry who is not of legal consent age in the state where she
Jessop said the church has been widely misunderstood, but he said
the church will not sanction marriages of underage girls and will
counsel members against such unions. He insisted marriages within
the church have always been consensual.
Child Protective Services removed all the children from the ranch
after an April 3 raid prompted by calls to a domestic abuse hot line
that purportedly came from a 16-year-old mother who was being abused
by her middle-age husband. The calls are now being investigated as a
hoax, but authorities contended all the children were at risk
because church teachings pushed underage girls into marriage and sex.
The church has denied any children were abused, and members have
said they are being persecuted for their religion, which believes
polygamy brings glorification in heaven.
Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for the child-protection agency,
said authorities still have concerns about the children's safety,
and the investigation into possible abuse would continue.
The Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed an appeals court ruling that
reversed Walther's decision in April putting all children from the
ranch into foster case.
The high court and the appeals court rejected the state's argument
that all the children were in immediate danger from what it said was
sexual abuse of teenage girls at the ranch.
The Third Court of Appeals ruled that the state failed to show that
any more than five of the teenage girls were being sexually abused,
and had offered no evidence of sexual or physical abuse against the
Half the children sent to foster care were no older than 5.
All the children, including any underage mothers, will be allowed to
go back to their parents, though it's possible some children's
attorneys or child-protection officials could pursue further action
in individual cases.
It's not clear how many might return to the ranch right away. Many
of the parents have purchased or rented homes in Amarillo, San
Antonio and other places around the state.
Rod Parker, a spokesman for the FLDS church, said some of the
attorneys have advised parents to stay away from the ranch for now,
but most families want to return so the children can continue the
education they were getting at the sect's schoolhouse before the
Walther's order does not end a separate criminal investigation.
Texas authorities last week collected DNA from jailed FLDS prophet
Warren Jeffs as part of investigation into underage sex with girls,
ages 12 to 15. He has been convicted in Utah as an accomplice to
rape and is jail in Arizona awaiting trial on separate charges.
The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, which renounced
polygamy more than a century ago.
Associated Press writers Elizabeth White in Gonzales, Linda Ball in
Fort Worth and Betsy Blaney in Amarillo contributed to this report.
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