Polygamous Sect's Children Begin to Return to Parents

A Texas judge signed off on an order Monday morning that cleared the way for polygamist sect children to be reunited with their parents. Within hours of the decision, mother and fathers lined up to retrieve their kids. Video by AP
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

SAN ANGELO, Tex., June 2 -- More than 440 children of an insular West Texas polygamist group began returning to their parents and their homes on Monday after two months in state custody, where they were exposed for the first time to a larger world that included bicycles, pepperoni pizza and news of moon landings.

A lower-court judge ordered the release here on Monday morning, after the Texas Supreme Court's rejection last Thursday of the state's arguments for seizing them in April from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Tex. By late afternoon, child-protection officials said that several dozen of the children were back home.

The release marked a major victory for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), whose compound was raided April 3 by state officials looking for evidence that underage girls were married to and having children with much older men. But it also presents challenges for the sect, which practices what its members say is a purer, more fundamentalist type of Mormonism.

To regain custody, sect members had to promise to take parenting classes and not to abscond with their children. Some families opted to leave the compound to appease state authorities and improve their chances of keeping their children. And the sect must now reintegrate hundreds of children who, in foster care, have been immersed in the life of a typical American child.

Donna Broom, a Houston lawyer whose practice represents two of the children, said she had been told that the children at one group home were so excited that they would be returning home that they had packed their bags on Friday, when the first rumors came through. But Broom said that one child was already anticipating missing a new pleasure discovered at the group home.

"She said, 'Would you bring me a pizza?' " said Broom, adding that she told the child that she was not sure that would be possible. "We'll just wait and see."

The children are not the only ones who have been changed by the interaction with the state. Willie Jessop, a group elder, told reporters that, from now on, the church will not sanction the marriage of any girl who is not old enough to legally consent, and that it will counsel members against such unions, according to the Associated Press.

Still, the immediate reaction of sect members was one of joy as parents drove to the far corners of this vast state to collect their children.

"We'll take it," said Jessop, who added that the group would have preferred less-restrictive terms but cared most about getting their sons and daughters home quickly.

"The toll on the children is certainly showing," he said.

One open question is how the sect's children will react. Before they were seized, they were rarely seen outside the ranch's fence line. But now, they have spent nearly two months immersed in a wider world.

"When they first came, they made the comment that they didn't believe man had landed on the moon," said David Miller, the president and chief executive of Hendrick Home for Children, a tidy green spread in the nearby town of Abilene. His group home received 12 children from the Eldorado ranch.

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