Child welfare officials in Texas have received scathing criticism of their decision to remove more than 450 children from the compound of a polygamous Mormon group in early April, and ordered them returned to their parents.
For the mothers and fathers, however, the sudden reversal in what had already become the biggest child custody case in the history of the United States, offered grounds for unexpected hope. "I just feel like I'm coming back to life," said Nancy Dockstader, whose five children were among those seized last month during the raid on the sect's Yearning for Zion ranch in the tiny town of Eldorado in the west of the state. "We can be a family again. It's just unreal."
Seven weeks ago, officials from the state's Family and Protective Services department, accompanied by armed police, raided the ranch and began escorting bewildered mothers and children to waiting buses.
Now, however, the entire case presented by the department contending that the children were in imminent danger of sexual abuse appears to be unravelling. The state yesterday said it was planning to file an appeal of its own to the Texas Supreme Court to reverse Thursday's ruling.
The Third Court of Appeals, acting on a suit brought by lawyers on behalf of 38 mothers, said in a unanimous decision that the state did not have the evidence of ongoing sexual abuse necessary to justify the summary removal of the children and the separation from their mothers.
District Court Judge Barbara Weather, who originally ruled in favour of putting the children in foster care, has been given 10 days to release them from the state's custody. Even though the appellate court was speaking only to the 38 mothers, its ruling is likely to apply to all the children. An appeal by the state, however, could delay the date for the return of the children to the ranch.
"We're going to take it one day at a time," said James, the husband of Mrs Dockstader. "We expect that they would go ahead and appeal it, but we are in full hope that the children will return soon." The Dockstaders say they are a monogamous couple.
Extracting the children from the foster families to which they were farmed out across the state will not be easy. Nor is it clear what the psychological risk would be for the children.
The Eldorado ranch was built in 2003 by a branch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS).
Welfare officials have insisted that because the sect continues the practice of polygamy, children on the compound were at persistent risk of being obliged to enter unions that would involve involuntary and under-age sex. Members of the sect claim they are being persecuted by the state because of their religious beliefs.
But the state was on the defensive even before this week's appeal ruling. Officials opted to make the raid after receiving an anonymous phone call from an under-age girl within the compound pleading to be rescued. However, that girl was never identified and it increasingly looks as if the phone call was a hoax.
The appellate court said the record did "not reflect any reasonable effort on the part of the department to ascertain if some measure short of removal and/or separation would have eliminated the risk" to the children. It added that the evidence of danger to them was "was legally and factually insufficient" to have justified the action and the department had "abused its discretion".
The polygamous sects
Leaders of the Mormon Church first rejected polygamous marriage in 1890, partly to gain statehood for Utah. In 1906, they decreed members still engaging in polygamy would be excommunicated. But in the 1920s, a dissenter, Lorin Woolley, established a line of breakaway fundamentalist Mormon groups.
Mostly living in Utah and Arizona, polygamous Mormons trace their beliefs back to Woolley. Over the decades state authorities have mostly steered clear of confrontation with these self-sufficient communities. The largest attempted crackdown hitherto, remembered as the Short Creek raid, took place in Arizona in 1953.
But pressure is being applied again with the conviction of Warren Jeffs, leader of the Mormon sect the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), last year and the raid last month on the Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas.