AUSTIN -- The state agency tasked with protecting children from abuse failed to demonstrate that the more than 460 youngsters seized from a polygamist compound in West Texas were in imminent danger and overreached its authority by taking them from their families, an appeals court ruled Thursday.
"The existence of the FDLS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) as described by (the state's) witnesses does not by itself put children of FDLS parents in physical danger," the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals said in a nine-page ruling.
The impact of the ruling was not immediately clear. But it deals a setback to Child Protective Services, which has said it had no choice but to take the children from the breakaway Mormon sect and place them into foster care.
The children have been in state custody since early April after officials received an anonymous call from a girl claiming to be 16 and pregnant and married to an abusive 50-year-old from the compound. Officials now believe the call may have been a hoax. But a state district judge in San Angelo had ruled that the children were to remain in state custody pending the outcome of additional court action.
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Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid filed the appeal that led to Thursday's ruling, which the organization lauded as a victory.
"The way that the courts have ignored the legal rights of these mothers is ridiculous," said Julie Balovich, an attorney for the organization. "It was about time a court stood up and said that what has been happening to these families is wrong."
In its ruling, the appeals court ruled that the state agency failed to provide any evidence that the children were in imminent danger and acted hastily in removing them from their families.
Balovich said it was uncertain when the children would be returned.
"At this time, it is unclear when these families will be reunited,” Balovich said. "Our attorneys have been reviewing the next legal steps that are necessary in this process. We remain dedicated to continuing to represent these women as this battle continues."
Balovich said the court order gives District Judge Barbara Walther 10 days to vacate her original order or the appellate court will act on its own.
"I believe this order applies to all mothers and all children," Balovich said.
Balovich said this ruling could be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Tela Mange said the court's ruling does not impact the criminal investigation into the YFZ Ranch.
"It is still continuing," Mange said, who declined further comment.
Mange said the state is continuing to investigate the Colorado woman suspected of making the original calls that triggered the raid.
"Our investigation is ongoing," Mange said. "We have some items at the crime lab that we’re waiting on."