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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.