Judge orders sect children to be returned to parents

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The Independent US

A judge has ordered the return of more than 400 children taken from their parents at a polygamist group's ranch because of suspected abuse, bringing an abrupt end to one of the largest custody cases in American history.

The order signed yesterday by Texas District Judge Barbara Walther, responding to a state Supreme Court ruling last week, allowed parents from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) to pick up their children from foster care facilities around the state almost immediately.

In exchange for regaining custody, the parents are not allowed to leave Texas without court permission and must participate in parenting classes. They were also ordered not to interfere with any child abuse investigation and to allow the children to undergo psychiatric or medical examinations if required.

However, the order does not put restrictions on the children's fathers, or require parents to renounce polygamy or live away from the sect's Yearning for Zion ranch in west Texas.

"We're really grateful to get the order signed," said Willie Jessop, an FLDS elder. Without elaborating, Mr Jessop added he had hoped for a less restrictive order.

Marleigh Meisner, of Texas Child Protective Services (CPS), said the agency was pleased with the order but added that the investigation into possible abuse will continue. "The safety of these children remains our only goal in this case," she said.

The state presented witnesses alleging that underage girls were being forced into marriages and sex. The judge's order requires that parents allow children's welfare workers to make unannounced visits and that the families notify CPS if they plan to travel more than 100 miles from their homes. The order comes days after the Texas Supreme Court said Texas CPS overreached its authority in seizing custody of the children nearly two months ago.

The church denies any abuse of the children. Officials say they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs. The FLDS, whose members believe polygamy earns glorification in heaven, is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

Andrea Sloan, an attorney for some of the children in the case, said: "I know the parents agree that the return needs to be orderly and safe," she said. "We don't want parents rushing the doors of the shelter." Half of the children sent into foster care were no older than five.

Judge Walther's order does not end a separate criminal investigation involving an FDLS leader, Warren Jeffs.