FORT WORTH — Two months after Child Protective Services launched the largest roundup of children in state history, the children of a West Texas polygamist sect were being reunited with their families after a judge in San Angelo rescinded the order that had placed them in foster care.
The action by state District Judge Barbara Walther was met by a chorus of praise from members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and came after lawyers for the sect and the state spent the weekend hashing out the terms that would send the estimated 430 children home.
"These have been some of the longest days of my life," said Jennetta Jessop, who arrived at the Catholic Charities facility in Fort Worth to pick up her 5-year-old son just before 4 p.m. "This is the happiest day of my life."
On Monday, 129 children were returned to their parents, The Associated Press reported.
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In Eldorado, a sect spokesman issued what he called a clarification of church policy stating that underage girls will not be allowed to marry. He declined to say whether underage marriages were allowed in the past, according to the AP.
The children were taken beginning in early April after a shelter for abused families received a tip from someone claiming to be a pregnant teenager from the sect who had been forced into marriage with a much older man. Officials now suspect that the call was a hoax. But child welfare workers and law enforcement officers said that when they raided the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado, they found evidence that the children there were in imminent danger of abuse.
Two weeks later, Walther awarded the state temporary custody of the children, who had been housed in temporary shelters in the San Angelo area, and they were shipped off to foster care facilities across the state.
Walther's ruling was overturned by both an appeals court and the Texas Supreme Court, setting the stage for a parade of reunions that was expected to continue well into the week.
Perry criticizes move
While sect members arriving at foster care centers from Amarillo to Luling to San Antonio rejoiced at the prospect of reunion, not everyone was applauding the outcome of the high-profile case. Gov. Rick Perry, who indicated last month that he was proud of the actions taken by CPS, warned that the court's decision could result in placing the children in danger.
"The governor is concerned that the legal process by which the children were removed from their home is overshadowing the sexual abuse allegations at hand," said Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for Perry.
"He is very troubled that the children, especially those most at risk for abuse in this case — young girls — are being sent back to the very compound that is riddled with uncertainty, potential for harm and remains at the center of a very serious criminal investigation."
Late Monday, Elder Willie Jessop said the church won't allow underage girls to marry, according to the AP. Jessop said the policy, which he called a clarification, will forbid any girl to marry who is not of legal consent age in the state where she lives.
"The church insists on appropriate consent, including that of the woman and the man, in all circumstances," he said, reading from a statement at the ranch in Eldorado. "The church will counsel families that they neither request nor consent to any underage marriages. This policy will apply churchwide."
He said that the church has been widely misunderstood and insisted that marriages within the church have always been consensual.
He would not say whether marriages of underage girls had taken place in the past but said the sect as a whole should not be punished for the misdeeds of a few.
At the southeast Fort Worth foster care center near Holy Name Catholic Church, eight of the 31 youngsters there were reunited with their parents. Fort Worth police and troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety controlled traffic and kept order. When the first woman from the sect arrived in a sport utility vehicle with Nevada license plates around midafternoon, the officers herded a small group of reporters and photographers across the street to shield her from questions.
Several children from the sect could be seen romping inside an inflatable playhouse that had been delivered to the center's back yard as part of a send-off party for the youngsters, a staff member at the center said. Later, as more adults arrived, contact between them and reporters was not as restricted. Jessop, wearing the traditional prairie dress preferred by the woman from the sect, told reporters that she had picked up another child earlier in the day. Asked how she'd be spending the coming hours and days, she said, "Hugging, and taking lots of pictures."
"This has been a nightmare," Jessop said.
A couple who did not give their names arrived in a sport utility vehicle with a temporary license plate from a dealership in St. George, Utah, and appeared eager to see their children.
"Wonderful. We're so grateful," said one FLDS mother who arrived after 3 p.m. with her husband at the foster care center.
The judge's order
Walther's order requires all sect members picking up their children to be photographed and fingerprinted. They must agree not to leave the state and to provide seven days' notice if they plan to move their children. They must also take parenting classes and allow CPS workers to make unannounced inspections at their homes.
"Our main concern all along has been to get these families back together, and that is finally beginning to take place now," said Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for a legal aid group that represented 38 FLDS mothers who had sued to regain custody of the children. "It's really great to see these families coming back together."
Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for CPS, said officials were satisfied with the conditions imposed by the judge.
"The safety of these children remains our only goal in this case," she said.