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Texas Supreme Court Backs FLDS Mothers

Children reunite with parents in wake of Supremes' decision

By Jordan Smith, Fri., June 6, 2008

The reunited Steed family with D'Ann Johnson (l) of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid
The reunited Steed family with D'Ann Johnson (l) of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid
Photo by Alan Pogue

After reviewing the evidence and testimony proffered during hearings in district court, the Texas Supreme Court ruled May 29 that it is "not inclined to disturb" last week's 3rd Court of Appeals' decision ordering the return of 126 children to their Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints parents. "On the record before us," the court wrote, "removal of the children was not warranted." On the heels of the court ruling, state District Judge Barbara Walther on Monday signed off on an order releasing more than 400 FLDS children back to the custody of their parents.

The Supremes' decision came less than a week after the lower appeals court ruled that Child Protective Services was wrong last April in removing the 126 children belonging to 38 mothers from the FLDS' West Texas compound. The state had actually removed more than 400 children from the so-called Yearning for Zion Ranch – every child found there – after local officials received a phone call from a woman alleging that she was a 16-year-old at the ranch who had been forced to become the seventh wife of a 50-year-old man. Officials never found the 16-year-old, and it appears now that the call was a hoax. However, that didn't stop Wal­ther from granting the state custody of all the children taken from the ranch; the court concluded that the FLDS' belief in polygamy, and the group's reputation for marrying off young girls to older men, created an environment of pervasive sexual abuse from which the children should be protected.

Unfortunately for the state, the appeals court ruled last week that CPS hasn't yet provided specific evidence to suggest that individual children are facing imminent danger to their health or physical safety – a sentiment that the Texas Supreme Court echoed in its ruling. CPS argues, "without explanation," that the 3rd Court's ruling would leave "the Department unable to protect the children's safety" – but, the Supremes noted, the state's Family Code gives Judge Walther "broad authority to protect children short of separating them from their parents and placing them in foster care." For example, the court has the option to "make and modify" temporary custody orders to forbid parents from taking their children outside the state. The state could also seek to remove "alleged perpetrators" from a child's home – presumably, older men either married to underage girls or found to be fathers of children born to teen girls. The district court may also issue "orders to assist [CPS] in its investigation." Further, the court wrote, statute "prohibits interference with an investigation, and a person who relocates a residence or conceals a child with the intent to interfere with an investigation commits an offense."

Still, Justices Harriet O'Neill (the only woman on the court), Phil Johnson, and Don Willett dissented, in part, finding that CPS had presented ample evidence to warrant removal of, at least, the "pubescent girls" living on the YFZ Ranch. Evidence presented "indicated a pattern or practice of sexual abuse of pubescent girls, and the condoning of such sexual abuse, on the Ranch," they wrote, "sufficient to satisfy a 'person of ordinary prudence and caution' that other such girls were at risk of sexual abuse as well." Indeed, last week in court the state offered photos of FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs (currently imprisoned for acting as an accomplice to rape) kissing a 12-year-old girl he had presumably taken as one of his more than 50 wives. The argument goes that if the prophet condones such behavior, it is logical to believe his flock does as well. But FLDS spokesman and Utah attorney Rod Parker told CNN that the photos introduced as evidence in a Tom Green Co. court last month were nothing more than inflammatory: "an effort by CPS to try to get publicity for their larger attempt to paint everybody with the same brush," he said. "What I'm saying is, that isn't fair, and each parent of each family is entitled to stand on its own."

Indeed, in her June 2 order, Walther responded to the Supreme Court's ruling, requiring all of the FLDS parents to receive court permission before traveling more than 100 miles away from their Eldorado home and requiring them to participate in parenting classes. Moreover, Walther admonished the parents not to interfere with any future child abuse investigations and is requiring parents to allow CPS investigators to make unannounced home visits. CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner told the Associated Press that the agency is pleased with Walther's ruling and that the investigation into possible abuse at the ranch will continue. "The safety of these children remains our only goal in this case," she said.

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