A US court has said the seizure of over 400 children from a polygamist ranch in Texas is illegal.
The Texas appeals court has thus put paid to the attempts of the state authorities to rescue the children from sexual abuse.
The case began on April 3, when Texas investigators, saying they were responding to a girl's call for help, raided the 1,691-acre Yearning for Zion ranch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The caller was never found, and investigators now suspect that the call was a hoax.
In a unanimous ruling on Thursday last, three judges of the Third Court of Appeals in Austin revoked the state's custody over the children of 38 mothers saying there was no proof to show that they were in immediate danger of sexual or physical abuse. But the ruling should apply to all the children.
In all 468 children are now put up in foster homes, scattered throughout the state.
Although the court did not order the children's immediate release, it raised the prospect that many of them would be reunited with their families, possibly within 10 days. The children have been in foster homes scattered across Texas.
The polygamous sect broke away from the Mormon church decades ago over the Mormons' condemnation of plural marriage and began building its secluded compound in Eldorado in 2003, reports New York Times.
The sect's leader, Warren Jeffs, was sentenced last November in Utah to 10 years to life in prison for forcing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old cousin and to submit to sexual relations against her will.
One mother, Martha Emack, 23, said she was "totally thrilled" by the ruling. "Everyone is totally overjoyed to tears," she said in a telephone interview.
Emack said both of her children had been seized — one just turned a year old and the other 2. "It's been very emotional, very traumatizing," she said.
When asked whether she ultimately wanted to return to the ranch with her children, Ms. Emack said quickly, "I do want to go back."
The 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."
It said that the evidence of danger to the children "was legally and factually insufficient" to justify the removal and that the lower court had "abused its discretion" in failing to return the children to the families.
In a statement after the ruling on Thursday, the Department of Family and Protective Services said: "Child Protective Services has one duty: to protect children. When we see evidence that children have been sexually abused and remain at risk of further abuse, we will act."
The agency said it removed the children "after finding a pervasive pattern of sexual abuse that puts every child at the ranch at risk." The officials said interviews "revealed a pattern of under-age girls being 'spiritually united' with older men and having children with the men."
"We will work with the Office of Attorney General to determine the state's next steps in this case," the department said.
The appeals judges who ruled, Chief Justice W. Kenneth Law and Justices Robert. H. Pemberton and Alan Waldrop, all Republicans, said removing children from their homes was "an extreme measure" justifiable only in the event of urgent or immediate danger.
Instead, the court said, the state argued that the "belief system" at the ranch condoned under-age marriage and pregnancy and that the whole ranch functioned as a "household" in which sexual abuse anywhere threatened children in the entire community.
But in reality, the judges said, there was no evidence of widespread abuse, and they faulted the district judge, Barbara Walther, for approving the children's removal based on insufficient grounds.
It was not the first time a raid on polygamists may have backfired. In 1953 Arizona authorities under Gov. Howard Pyle raided the fundamentalist community of Short Creek, which is now Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, taking about 160 children into state custody.
But the custody ruling was overturned on appeal in 1955 after lawyers for the children argued that they were denied adequate legal representation. Most of the women and children then returned to Short Creek to join their husbands, who had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor conspiracy to commit unlawful cohabitation and were sentenced to one year on probation. Governor Pyle lost the 1954 election.
Mohave County Judge J.W. Faulkner later said he made a legal "blunder" during the custody hearings, writing after his retirement in 1955 that the reversal "will inevitably give new life to the cause of polygamy, and prolonging the fight for another 50 years."