US religious sect child abuse horror


Sunday, April 6, 2008

Texas Officials Preparing 'For the Worst' in Polygamist Compound Conflict



Sect leaders at a polygamist compound in West Texas refused Saturday to let authorities search a temple for a teenage girl whose report of abuse led to the raid, and authorities said they were preparing "for the worst."

If no agreement is reached with sect leaders, authorities will forcibly remove the sect's followers "as peaceably as possible," Allison Palmer, a prosecutor in Tom Green County, told the San Angelo Standard-Times.
Medical workers are being sent "in case this were to a go in a way that no one wants," Palmer said. Law enforcers are "preparing for the worst," she said.
"Within the religion that we have encountered, their place of worship is very special to them," Palmer said. "It appears to be of great concern to them if a person from outside their congregation even attempts to step inside their place of worship."
A search warrant authorized troopers to enter the retreat, run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They are looking for evidence of a marriage between the girl and a 50-year-old man.

Court documents the girl had a baby eight months ago, when she was 15.

State welfare officials on Friday removed 52 girls from the compound. Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for Child Protective Services, said another 131 residents were removed overnight. By Saturday afternoon, 137 children and 46 women were being housed and interviewed at local community centers
They seem to be doing fine," Meisner told The Associated Press. Investigators remained inside the compound looking for additional children, she said.
The whereabouts of the 16-year-old mother who sparked the investigation are unknown, Meisner said. State troopers who raided the religious retreat were looking for the girl, her baby girl and 50-year-old Dale Barlow.
Under Texas law, girls younger than 16 cannot marry, even with parental approval.
Officials in Texas declined to comment Saturday on whether they had found Barlow, citing a gag order, but the man's probation officer told The Salt Lake Tribune that he was in Arizona.
"He said the authorities had called him (in Colorado City, Ariz.) and some girl had accused him of assaulting her and he didn't even know who she was," said Bill Loader, a probation officer in Arizona.
Barlow was sentenced to jail time last year after pleading no contest to conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor. He was also ordered to register as a sex offender for three years while he is on probation.
His lawyer in that case, Bruce Griffen, said he had not spoken to Barlow in a year.
The search warrant instructed officers to look for marriage records or other evidence linking her to the man and the baby. The warrant authorized the seizure of computer drives, CDs, DVDs or photos.
Those inside the retreat did not respond to requests for comment.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints broke away from the Mormon church after the latter disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.
The compound sits down a narrow paved road and behind a hill that shields it almost entirely from view in town. Only the 80-foot-high, gleaming white temple can be seen on the horizon. Authorities blocked access to the gate, keeping onlookers miles away.
The 1,700-acre property had been an exotic game ranch. It is surrounded by dusty, wind-swept land where sheep are raised and mohair produced.
Eldorado (pronounced el-dor-AY'-do) is a two-stoplight town of fewer than 2,000 people and located nearly 200 miles northwest of San Antonio. It consists of a cluster of government buildings, a couple churches and a few blocks of houses.
State officials said they did not know how many people lived at the retreat, although local officials estimated about 150 two years ago.
The FLDS has been led by Warren Jeffs since his father died in 2002. In November, Jeffs was sentenced to two consecutive sentences of five years to life in prison in Utah for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl who wed her cousin in an arranged marriage in 2001.
In Arizona, Jeffs is charged as an accomplice with four counts each of incest and sexual conduct with a minor stemming from two arranged marriages between teenage girls and their older male relatives. He is jailed in Kingman, Ariz., awaiting trial.

Fox news report

Religious Compounds

Does Waco, Texas or Jim Jones ring any bells with anyone? 

Fundamentalists seem to be a popular, rarely touched breed of people.  I suppose The State doesn't want to cause problems with religious freedoms, even if it's at the cost of a child's well-being.  Google "religious compounds with children".  It's scary stuff, and can easily be in anyone's town.  Below is a sample of one of the many OTHER compounds that exist in the continental U.S., alone.   Note the symbolic significance of bread, and how it 's used as a means to make money/support themselves.

Is the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps a religious cult? Are members harboring weapons, recruiting and brainwashing children - things they were accused of doing when their headquarters were in California? Or are the self-proclaimed ''Soldiers of God'' simply people who practice their religious freedom, bake and sell bread and insist on privacy?

Current group members aren't offering any clues, but El Pasoan Bob Heddon, 65, remembers why he beat a hasty retreat after joining the Berino group seven months ago. Heddon, still recovering emotionally from the death of his wife, was looking for Christian fellowship and Bible study. What he found in Berino was something quite different.

Group members wore black uniforms with berets, saluted and addressed each other by military titles.

''There wasn't a Bible in sight,'' Heddon said. ''They had sort of holy roller-type prayer meetings in the mornings and in the evenings where everyone rolled around on the floor and talked in tongues.''

No televisions, no radios, no children's toys were in sight at the schoolhouse, Heddon said. The bottom floor was a huge kitchen, where ''soldiers'' baked hundreds of loaves of bread every morning. The upper floor was full of Wisdom's Cry, a tabloid newspaper published and mostly written by the group's leaders.

Several attempts by the El Paso Times to contact the group by telephone, personal visits and certified mail were unsuccessful. On one occasion, a group member fled into the building when a reporter approached - then declined to answer the door.

Neighbors said they had no idea how many people live in the schoolhouse or whether there are any children there. Heddon estimated 10 to 12 people lived there seven months ago, most of them adults, a few in their teens. Eight years ago, the group had 25 to 30 members in Sacramento, California, according to news reports.

The group's leaders, Deborah and Jim Green, call themselves ''generals.'' They wrote and published a tabloid newspaper called The Battle Cry in Sacramento, and now publish Wisdom's Cry in Berino. Distributed free by group members and through the mail, the newspaper criticizes other religions, forecasts impending doom for mankind and calls upon group members, God's chosen ''soldiers,'' to carry on.

Critic casts doubt on mission

The Greens are intelligent, crafty people who have become adept at controlling others, said Robert Blasier, a Sacramento lawyer. He said he has represented parents of several group members. Today, he is part of the defense team at the O.J. Simpson trial in Los Angeles.

Deborah Green, who went by the name Lila Green in Sacramento, is especially convincing, Blasier said.

''Lila Green is the real power behind the group,'' he said. ''She's one of those people you look in the eyes and you feel real strange - a Charlie Manson type.''

In the El Paso-Las Cruces area, the group's only obvious contacts with the public are through its publications and when members go out into communities to sell bread. If it weren't for its past, the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps might be described as a group of model Berino citizens minding its own business.

Ministry history

In 10 years, the ministry has lived in five different compounds in three states and has changed its name at least three times.

In Sacramento, parents picketed the group's headquarters in the 1980s, claiming children were being recruited and brainwashed, according to a new account in the Sacramento Bee. In 1989, the ministry lost a $1 million lawsuit by default to a former member who said she was brainwashed, imprisoned and forced to divorce her husband and surrender legal custody of her four children. The group called itself Free Love Ministries then, and sometimes the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps in its newspaper.

Near Cool, Calif., and at another northern California compound, the group was accused of conducting militaristic training exercises after it was forced to abandon its headquarters in Sacramento. There, the group called itself Free Land Mountain for a while, Blasier said.

In Klamath Falls, Ore., residents were so suspicious of the group that they refused to eat at its restaurant, effectively banishing it from the town in 1992. ''They called themselves the Aggressive Christian Ministry Oregon,'' said Sue Todd, a local church member. ''The girls all wore blue skirts, knee-high socks and red or maroon sweaters. Some had babies. The community pretty much ignored them. They bought a couple houses - left them in shambles.''

Today, in Berino and at another group compound near Gallup, N.M., neighbors are curious, even though there has been no trouble, no reports of weapons and no obvious recruiting activities.

Horror stories

''It's a mental prison. They tore apart my life,'' said Maura Schmierer of Sacramento. She joined the group in 1982 when its headquarters were in Sacramento. ''They made me give up my children, told all kinds of lies about me . . . made my husband think I was a witch.''

Schmierer left the group, then called Free Love Ministries, in 1987. She filed a $20 million lawsuit alleging she was forced to divorce her husband and surrender legal custody of her four children. Her lawsuit also accused the group of holding her captive in a 5-by-12- foot wooden shed with a low ceiling that prevented her from standing upright.

''They claimed that God had judged me, so they excommunicated me and put me in a shed in the basement,'' Schmierer, now 47, said.

A year later she was awarded a $1 million default judgment against the Greens, the ministry and other group leaders. She regained custody of her two youngest children, but two others remained in the group with their father, she said.

Schmierer said her daughter, Rebecca, 26, returned home five years ago. Her son Nathaniel, 19, left the Gallup, N.M. compound in the middle of the night and came home six months ago. Her ex-husband, Steven Schmierer, is still with the group in Gallup but has changed his name, she said.

Maura Schmierer said her son Nathaniel had been with the group about 13 years, moving with it from California to Oregon and finally to the group's compound in Gallup. After he returned home to Sacramento, he estimated there were a total of about 30 people in the group's compounds at Berino and Gallup. Many of the group members he described, she said, ''are the same ones as when I was there nine years ago.''

Blasier represented Schmierer in the lawsuit. He said no one from Free Love Ministries showed up in court to contest it. As part of the judgement, the court seized the group's four houses and three small art stores. A lien also was acquired on the group's properties near Cool, in northern California.

All the properties were found vandalized after the group left them, he said.

Former group members said the Greens consider themselves prophets, chosen people who hear messages directly from God.

''They separate themselves from the world, believing the world is evil,'' Maura Schmierer said. ''They have some Christian principles, but they totally take Scripture out of context - far out in left field. They've made statements like every other church in America is going to hell.''

Searching for answers

Newcomers to the group often are people who are spiritually lost, looking for answers or help, said Doug Shearer, senior pastor at New Hope Christian Fellowship in Sacramento. He said his church has helped several refugees from the Aggressive Christianity Missions Corps get their lives back together.

''They're forced out of marriages, away from children. It's a wretched thing,'' Shearer said. ''And these types of organizations tend to get worse over time. They tend to develop a paranoia, a persecution complex.''

Blasier, who said he has helped at least 10 families try to retrieve children from the group, said the ministry's control techniques were typical of cult-type brainwashing. New members are forced to divorce themselves from the past, destroy mementos and photos, and reject all family ties. He said group members also are deprived of sleep, which induces a state of submission in many people, according to cult researchers.

El Paso Times, June 25, 1995

Four Years

It took four years to do something for hundreds of children being raped and married-off to men old enough to be their fathers.  416 children have been infected by "religious rights and conviction".

Why?  Legal reasons.

On Thursday, state and local law enforcement authorities defended their decision to leave the sect alone for four years after it moved in.

"We are aware that this group is capable of" sexually abusing girls, Sheriff David Doran said. "But there again, this is the United States. We are going to respect them. We're not going to violate their civil rights until we get an outcry."


Raid of polygamist compound

Raid of polygamist compound delivers daunting task for Child Protective Services

01:27 AM CDT on Sunday, April 13, 2008

By EMILY RAMSHAW and ROBERT T. GARRETT / The Dallas Morning News

Caseworkers, attorneys and guardians responsible for the hundreds of children removed from a West Texas polygamist compound last week are now grasping the reality of their workload – hundreds of painstaking interviews, thousands of pages of records and an ever-growing sense that they may be in over their heads.

Child Protective Services, which has never had a case this big, has dispatched close to 700 employees, or about a tenth of its statewide staff. Agency leaders say the situation is under control.


Women and children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints compound in Eldorado are now in San Angelo.

But former child welfare officials and outsiders who deal with CPS have their doubts. Since a complete overhaul of the agency four years ago, CPS still struggles to retain workers and keep an eye on foster children. Some fear a new operation of this size could drain the agency's limited resources and divert attention from existing cases.

"A case like this has a ripple effect. It's not just caseworkers, but foster parents, and law enforcement, and attorneys, and guardians, and judges," said Cathy O. Morris, a child welfare lawyer retired from CPS. "There are a lot of components to the system that will all be stretched. Right now, it's mind-boggling to even contemplate."

Child welfare workers acknowledge they've got an incredible challenge. Hundreds of them have been sent to West Texas, leaving regional offices short-staffed and their own cases in others' hands as they investigate the extent of abuse and neglect inside the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints religious ranch in Eldorado.

Investigators expect that many of the girls in their custody – some as young as 13 – have been forced into plural marriages with adult men, some of the girls repeatedly raped and beaten. Several girls have babies or are pregnant. And workers may struggle to even determine the ages and parents of the 416 children in custody, as the youths they must interview are conditioned to see them as the enemy.

Feeling prepared

Although the workload looks daunting, CPS officials say they can handle it. The agency dramatically increased the number of investigators on staff in recent years. And they've got help – from victims' rights groups, volunteer attorneys and the emergency funding authorized Thursday by Gov. Rick Perry and top state leaders.

"This is not CPS going it alone," agency spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said.

It's unclear what the operation will cost the agency, but the Texas Division of Emergency Management is spending about $30,000 a day on food, personal products, toys and medical services, Ms. Meisner said.

Child welfare workers aren't the only ones facing a tremendous workload. The West Texas legal system is hardly built for such an influx of cases.

Stretched thin

The Schleicher County Courthouse, centered in the two-stoplight town of Eldorado, has three employees. Last week, they worked with giant stacks of records – and two typewriters – to file the child custody cases into their system, before getting help from neighboring Tom Green County.

"You see my staff," said Peggy Williams, the county clerk. "We've had more cases filed here in a week than we've seen in a whole year."

In the larger community of San Angelo, court employees struggled over the incessant hum of the copy machines to field calls from lawyers, and to serve papers to the parents of children in state custody, many of whom had similar names.

"The work's just fixin' to begin," District Clerk Sheri Woodfin said.

Meanwhile, state officials are working overtime to secure legal counsel for each of the 416 children before Thursday's custody hearing. Nearly 75 lawyers between San Angelo and Eldorado have offered their services. So far, at least 50 North Texas lawyers have joined up, said Alicia Hernandez, director of the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program.

If a judge decides the children should be in foster care, CPS will hit a new set of hurdles.

The foster care system has been troubled in recent years. The state has had problems overseeing private placement agencies and finding enough beds for children removed from their birth parents.

In routine cases, child placement agencies try to keep siblings together and house them in comparable religious and geographic settings. But some of the sect children have as many as eight siblings, making this unlikely.

And advocates fear that putting another 416 children into foster homes will mean other youth aren't removed from dangerous settings. Roy Block, former president of the Texas Foster Family Association, said that in his 18 years as a foster parent, he's seen that happen every time foster beds are scarce.

"You can just look at the charts: When there are capacity issues, there are less children removed," said Mr. Block, whose family has offered to take children and mothers from the compound into their San Antonio home.

CPS spokesman Chris Van Deusen said he's confident no existing cases are suffering. Experienced employees are being deployed only where they can be spared, he said, leaving all regions with most of their staff intact. In the Dallas office, child welfare advocate Madeline McClure said, 18 investigators have been deployed, six at a time.

Agency officials say there is not a plan in place for foster parents yet. They haven't ruled out putting the children in foster homes outside of Texas. And there appears to be growing support for housing many of the children with their mothers in camplike retreats or larger residential homes.

State officials said Friday that the mothers and children will remain in San Angelo shelters through Thursday's custody hearing.

'Broken system'

The massive child welfare action comes at a turbulent time for CPS, still recovering from disasters years ago. In 2004, Mr. Perry called it a "broken system," after the gruesome deaths of several children that child-abuse investigators visited and chose to leave with their families.

The fatal beatings of three North Texas foster children between 2005 and 2006 underscored another serious shortfall: the state's faulty oversight of a mostly privatized system of foster home recruitment and training.

Last year, lawmakers poured an extra $91 million into the department, approving the hiring of nearly 1,100 people to help fix foster care. That same year, CPS reversed a decade-long trend, getting more children out of state care – through adoption or reunification with biological parents and relatives – than it took in. Before the West Texas case, CPS was on track to remove 13,500 children from their homes, down from more than 17,000 a few years ago.

But CPS' reputation has suffered, as has its employee morale. Last year, more than 40 percent of investigators quit. The vacancy rate for CPS investigators in Dallas County in January was 43 percent, said Ms. McClure, the child welfare advocate.

"They really do come together and stick together during crises like this," she said of the CPS staff. "It's when there's an ongoing burden, a never-ending light at the end of the tunnel, where people burn out and give up. "

To do this right, former CPS program administrator Susan Etheridge said, the agency needs to summon the "whole team." Private foster placement agencies. Mental health counselors. Children's advocacy centers. And maybe even large, church-affiliated children's homes.

The outpouring of state and local support – from individual families to large foster care providers – has given agency officials optimism. One child-placing official, Irene Clements, said calls are coming in to her private agency from families as far away as Wisconsin asking to help.

"People come out of the woodwork," she said.

The scope of CPS

In the West Texas raid, 416 children were removed over the course of two days. That's a little more than one-half of 1 percent of the agency's workload in the last fiscal year, when 71,344 cases of abuse were confirmed. On the other hand, it is slightly more than two usual days' worth of CPS-confirmed abuse cases statewide, all happening in one small area.

SOURCE: Department of Family and Protective Services

The Latest: Second Guessing "In the name of the Father"?

Complaints made about child-abuse seem to create a back-lash all of it's own... sadly, the mothers of those responsible for the protection of minors are now infected.  This one, hits home for me, because denial of a sin is deadly in ways some can never know.  I weep for the children whose mothers deny anything is wrong with their living-situation -- yes, I blame the mothers who will protect the men, and not the children, and I blame the politics of trickery that keep mothers away from their babies.  God (who else?) save us ALL from such corrupt duplicity and powerful deceit -- may someone PLEASE see-though the madness of wrongful-ownership and the egos behind such practice:

 SAN ANGELO, Texas – For nearly two weeks, journalists covering the removal of children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints compound, known as the YFZ Ranch, have had access to just one side of the story. 

During the initial raid, the men who live on the ranch weren’t allowed to leave, and the women who had been removed with their children were sequestered away in shelters.

That gave state officials the advantage of presenting their allegations of physical and sexual abuse of children on the ranch to the public with little chance for rebuttal except through church lawyers.

Well, the situation changed dramatically last night, when Texas Child Protective Services and police officers separated dozens of mothers from their children, keeping custody of the children and sending the women back to the ranch. (Some may have chosen to go to a battered women’s shelter, according to a CPS official.)

Immediately after the women went home, I received a call on my cell phone from a spokesman for the family.

"They’re all back at the ranch," he told me.  "They want to talk."

"When?" I asked.

"As soon as you can get here," he said.

So I dropped everything, and rushed to the ranch, along with more than a dozen other reporters who had received a similar call.

Speaking out

Two dozen or more women wearing prairie-style dresses were waiting for us outside of one of the buildings.

I’m posting some of their interviews here because I want you to hear from these women for yourselves.

VIDEO: 'They totally lied' - mothers in ranch raid speak out

They all had similar stories (so similar that some reporters suggested they were pre-rehearsed). 

In short, the women are heartbroken at having had their children taken away. They’re angry at the government for doing so, and for allegedly tricking them into returning to the ranch Monday without their children.

They said the living conditions in the shelter were cramped and dirty, but they also said many of the volunteers and even state workers who cared for them were warm, loving people. They worry they’ll never see their children again, and depending on the outcome of custody hearings on Thursday, they may be right.

They all denied their children were sexually or physically abused. They said all women are free to leave the ranch anytime they wish.  And, they suspect the phone call from a 16-year-old mother alleging abuse was a hoax from outside the compound.

One of the women, Marie, wanted to make sure to have the opportunity to say she forgives the people who have torn her family apart.

Click here to read more about the polygamist sect raid:
Compound considered home for sect's elite
Newsweek: Texas sect kept to itself

After a short wait at the main gate (where construction is almost complete on an ominous looking guard tower), we were all allowed in to the ranch living area. Homes and log-sided dormitories sat on a gentle knoll, separated by a wide, well maintained road.

Confidential communication with "the clergy"

Religion seems to be the safe way and means for a man to do anything he wants to do with other men, women and children.  No one is safe if confession is kept within the walls of "confidentiality".  Call yourself a clergy-man, and suddenly rules no longer apply... in fact, victims can then be easily chosen, all in the name of "salvation".  [Read the stories about Jehovah's Witness' own Frederick McLean , Timothy Silva, and James L Henderson, to name a few...]  The politics that support such behavior?  (Statutes of limitations, of course!)

As a doctrine of some faiths, clergy must maintain the confidentiality of pastoral communications. Mandatory reporting statutes in some States specify the circumstances under which a communication is privileged. “Privileged communications” is the statutory recognition of the right to maintain the confidentiality of such communication. Privileged communications may be exempt from the reporting laws. The privilege of maintaining this confidentiality under State law must be provided by statute. Most States do provide the privilege, typically in rules of evidence or civil procedure. If the issue of privilege is not addressed in the reporting laws, it does not mean that privilege is not granted; it may be granted in other parts of State statutes. This privilege, however, is not absolute. While clergy-penitent privilege is frequently recognized within the reporting laws, it is typically interpreted narrowly in the child abuse or neglect context.

Let's not forget the

Let's not forget the Catholic confession given by his holy Pope-ness.

The pontiff questioned how Catholics could ignore church teaching on sex, exploit or ignore the poor, or adopt positions contradiciting "the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death."

"Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted," he said. Benedict's remarks came on a day when all of the five Catholic justices on the U.S. Supreme Court approved the most widely used method of lethal injection, and congressional representatives who support abortion rights said they planned to take Holy Communion on Thursday at a papal Mass.

Benedict returned to the clergy sex abuse scandal that has cost the American church more than $2 billion, most paid out to victims in the last six years, calling it a cause of "deep shame." He decried the "enormous pain" that communities have suffered from such "gravely immoral behavior" by priest.


I'm still waiting to hear for the apology saying, "We're sorry for selling mother's children to strangers, and making it seem like a good deed that had to be done in the name of God".  I bet it will be a cold day in hell for that to happen!

Is there any religion or sect that doesn't screw with the minds and bodies of its followers?

Moving them, by the bus-load

What will become of them, now that CPS has taken over?

State District Judge Barbara Walther signed an order Tuesday allowing Child Protective services officials to begin moving the 437 children held in the San Angelo Coliseum for the last two weeks into temporary foster care, most likely group homes or privately run facilities, until individual custody hearings can be held.

Officials said they will try to keep siblings together when possible, though some polygamous families may have dozens of siblings.

Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Legal Aid attorneys representing dozens of parents, said buses were lined up at the coliseum Tuesday, but she was unsure whether any children were being moved.

CPS officials declined comment.

David Williams, 32, a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, came on his own from his home in Nevada, hoping to take custody of his sons. Williams said he doesn't pay attention to the news and only heard his three sons were in state custody from a friend.

Clutching a Book of Mormon and photos of the boys ages 5, 7 and 9, Williams looked at his feet as he said his children were "taken hostage by the state."

"I have been an honorable American and father and I have carefully sheltered my children from the sins of this generation," Williams said. He declined to describe the mother of the boys as his wife and declined to offer details of why or when he left the sect.

The judge in the case is requiring the state to try to keep siblings together and children under 12 months of age will be allowed to stay with their siblings under the age of five.

Judge orders DNA tests
A judge ordered last week that the DNA be taken to help determine the parentage of the children, many of whom were unable to describe their lineage. Some of the adults have been ordered by the state to submit to testing; others are being asked to do so voluntarily.

  Polygamists' children moved
April 22: The children from a Texas polygamist ranch are being moved to foster homes. NBC's Don Teague reports.


Gee, I didn't see THIS coming...

Court: Texas wrongly seized sect children

Judge has 10 days to comply with ruling; applies to 48 polygamist mothers
The Associated Press
updated 3:28 p.m. ET, Thurs., May. 22, 2008

SAN ANGELO, Texas - A Texas appeals court said Thursday that the state had no right to take more than 400 children from a polygamist sect's ranch, a ruling that could unravel one of the biggest child-custody cases in U.S. history.

It was unclear how many children were affected by the ruling. The state took 464 children into custody, but Thursday's ruling directly applied to the children of 48 sect mothers represented by the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aide, said Cynthia Martinez of the agency.

The Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled that the state offered "legally and factually insufficient" grounds for the "extreme" measure of removing all children from the ranch, from babies to teenagers.

The state never provided evidence that the children were in any immediate danger, the only grounds in Texas law for taking children from their parents without court approval, the appeals court said.

The state also never provided evidence that teenage girls were being sexually abused, and never alleged any sexual or physical abuse against the other children, the court said.

It was not immediately clear whether the children, scattered across foster facilities statewide, might soon be reunited with parents.

Every child at the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado was taken into state custody more than six weeks ago, after Child Protective Services officials argued that members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints pushed underage girls into marriage and sex and groomed boys to become adult perpetrators.

"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," the court said in its ruling, overturning the order to keep the children by state District Judge Barbara Walther, a former family law attorney.


The appeals court also said the state was wrong to consider the entire ranch as an individual household and that any abuse claims could apply only to individual households.

Deciding on an appeal
Julie Balovich, an attorney representing 38 mothers of the children, said the appeals court "has stood up for the legal rights of these families and given these mothers hope that their families will be brought back together."

"It is a great day for families in the State of Texas," Balovich said.

She said Walther has 10 days to comply with the appeals court ruling.

CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said department attorneys had just received the ruling and would make any decision about an appeal later.

"We are trying to assess the impact that this may have on our case," he said.

Calls to FLDS officials were not immediately returned Thursday.

Reclassifying sect moms
Roughly a third of the children taken from the west Texas ranch were babies, and only a few dozen were teenage girls.

Of the 31 originally believed to be underage mothers, 15 have been reclassified as adults — one was 27 years old — and the state conceded a 14-year-old girl had no children and was not pregnant, as officials previously asserted.

Five judges in San Angelo, about 40 miles north of Eldorado, have been hearing CPS's plans for the parents seeking to regain custody. Those hearings, which began Monday, were scheduled to run for two more weeks — though it was unclear how the appellate ruling might affect those cases.

Chaotic court hearings
The custody case has been chaotic from the beginning. The hearing in which Walther ruled that the children should all enter state custody ran two days.

Hundreds of lawyers crammed into a courtroom and nearby auditorium, queuing up to voice objections or ask questions on behalf of the mothers who were there in their trademark prairie dresses and braided hair.

CPS has struggled with even the identities of the children for weeks.

The sect children were removed en masse during a raid that began April 3 after someone called a domestic abuse hot line claiming to be a pregnant abused teenage wife. The girl has not been found and authorities are investigating whether the calls were a hoax.

The FLDS, which teaches that polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago. Members contend they are being persecuted by state officials for their religious beliefs.



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