SAN ANGELO, Texas - More than 400 children taken from a polygamist sect's ranch two months ago began returning yesterday to the arms of their parents, hours after a judge bowed to a state Supreme Court ruling that the seizure was not justified.
"We're so grateful," said Nancy Dockstader, whose chin quivered and eyes filled with tears as she embraced her daughter Amy, 9, outside a foster-care center in Gonzales, about 65 miles east of San Antonio.
Amy 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 of the families to be reunited.
Yesterday, 129 children were returned to their parents.
Judge Barbara Walther responded to a state Supreme Court ruling last week by signing an order that cleared the children for release from foster care. Walther allowed parents to begin picking up their children yesterday.
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.
The order does not 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 yesterday, elder Willie Jessop said the church would not allow underage girls to marry. Jessop said the policy, which he called a clarification, would forbid any girl to marry who is not of legal consent age in the state where she lives.
Jessop insisted that marriages within the church had always been consensual. He would not say whether marriages of underage minors had taken place in the past but said the sect as a whole should not be punished for the misdeeds of a few.
Child Protective Services removed all the children from the ranch after an April 3 raid prompted by calls to a domestic-abuse hotline that officials initially said 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 that all the children were at risk because church teachings pushed underage girls into marriage and sex.
The church has denied that any children were abused, and members have said they were being persecuted for their religion, which believes that polygamy brings glorification in heaven.
Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for the child-protection agency, said that authorities still had concerns about the children's safety, and that the investigation into possible abuse would continue.
The state Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed an appeals court's rejection of Walther's April decision that had put all children from the ranch into foster care.
The Third Court of Appeals said the state failed to show that any more than five of the teenage girls at the ranch were being sexually abused, and had offered no evidence of sexual or physical abuse against the other children.
Half the children sent to foster care were no older than 5.