Court Rejects Seizure Of Tex. Sect's Children

In San Angelo, Tex., members of a Mormon sect react to an appeals court ruling on children seized from their ranch.
In San Angelo, Tex., members of a Mormon sect react to an appeals court ruling on children seized from their ranch. (By Brian Connelly -- San Angelo Standard-times Via Associated Press)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2008

A Texas appeals court yesterday ruled that state child-protection officials lacked the evidence to seize children from the compound of a polygamist sect last month, rejecting arguments that the group's belief system is itself a dangerous form of abuse.

The court's decision, issued in Austin in response to petitions from 41 mothers, did not immediately return the 464 children seized at the Yearning for Zion Ranch to their parents. But experts said the state's justification for the raid at the West Texas compound run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) may have been fatally undermined.

"Even if one views the FLDS belief system as creating a danger of sexual abuse by grooming boys to be perpetrators of sexual abuse and raising girls to be victims of sexual abuse," the three-judge panel wrote, ". . . there is no evidence that this danger is 'immediate' or 'urgent' . . . with respect to every child in the community."

If Texas officials cannot produce new evidence of abuse or win an appeal to the state Supreme Court, experts and lawyers involved in the case predicted, many of the children eventually could be returned to their parents. The appellate judges directed a lower court to vacate orders that had granted the mothers' children to the custody of the state.

James Paulsen, a professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston, said the court seemed to have demolished a main pillar of the state's argument for seizing all the sect's children, instead of only those for whom there was proof of physical abuse.

"The notion that you can take an 18-month-old child . . . and say that a child that isn't old enough to talk is somehow being influenced by a toxic environment is nonsense," Paulsen said.

David Schenck, a Dallas attorney for some of the mothers, said the state will now have to present evidence that individual children were physically harmed or in danger of harm, instead of seeking to portray the entire sect and its compound as unfit for children.

"It could be that you have wrongdoers somewhere in there. But the thing you have to do is identify them," he said. "You can't just throw a net over 1,000 people."

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which has custody of the children, issued a statement yesterday defending its actions and contending that investigators had found "a pervasive pattern of sexual abuse that puts every child at the ranch at risk."

A spokesman for the department, Patrick Crimmins, said the idea of appealing the decision "is being considered right now. No decision has been made."

In a sign of the murkiness that surrounds the case, Crimmins said child-protection workers are unsure how many of the children belong to the mothers who filed petitions. State authorities have described "a pattern of organized deception" among sect members in which children and adults gave false information or no information about their age or family relationships.

The case began April 3, when Texas authorities raided the 1,700-acre ranch set in scrubland near the town of Eldorado. The raid was triggered by a series of phone calls, made to a domestic violence shelter in nearby San Angelo, by a young woman who said she had been forced into marriage and teenage pregnancy at the ranch.

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