Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints file out of the Tom Green County Courthouse following the custody hearing in San Angelo, Texas on Friday, April 18, 2008. Presiding judge Barbara Walther ruled that all children remain in the custody of the state. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- The custody case that swept 439 children from a polygamist sect's western Texas ranch into foster care has largely evaporated, with state authorities dropping all but a few dozen cases against parents.
All but 37 children from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado have been released from court oversight after Child Protective Services found they had not been abused or that their parents could protect them from the risk of future abuse. Only one girl has been returned to foster care.
CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said the agency is pleased with the case dismissals, because they mean the children can safely remain with their parents and that questions about their safety have been resolved.
"CPS has taken a lot of criticism for this operation since April, but we've been doing everything we can to work with these families to ensure positive outcomes," he said. "If they're safe to the point where court oversight is no longer necessary, that's great news."
Authorities raided the ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in April after someone claiming to be an abused underage mother called a domestic abuse hot line. Those calls are now being investigated as a possible hoax.
Following the raid, CPS took all the children at the ranch into state custody - one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history - claiming underage girls were being forced into marriages and sex and that the other children were at risk of abuse. They treated the ranch, which has more than a dozen sprawling homes, as a single household where the alleged abuse of some children justified the removal of the others.
The Texas Supreme Court later ruled CPS had overreached by putting all the children into foster care when it could show that no more than a handful of girls may have been abused.
The ruling did not, however, end court oversight of the children, even as they were returned to their parents. The parents were ordered to take parenting classes and to cooperate with CPS investigators, and they could not leave the state.
One by one, the state has been dropping the children from court oversight.
Separately, CPS is investigating whether each child was abused or neglected. The findings from that investigation are expected to be released next month. Even if abuse is found to have occurred previously, parents who can assure that the child will remain safe can be released from court oversight.
FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop said the dismissal of the cases proves what the church has said all along: that the children were not abused. The cases that remain in court do so because of varying qualities of legal representation, not because of actual abuse, he said.
"It has nothing to do with the facts of the case," Jessop said.
Crimmins said the reasons some children remain under court oversight vary but may be as simple as a parent refusing to sign a safety plan that specifies where the family will live and who the child will be allowed to have contact with.
While the parents and children may legally return to the ranch, few have, Jessop said. With almost no one working over the spring and summer in the sprawling garden and dairy used to feed the community, the ranch doesn't have the supply of food and resources it once did.
FLDS communities hold much of their goods in common, and members have work duties within the community. That lifestyle was disrupted by the state when parents moved to individual homes around Texas in an effort to get their children back, Jessop said.
"They disrupted the community and its ability to function as it was," he said, noting community members may have to seek public assistance they never needed when the garden and dairy were fully operational.
Eight FLDS members, including jailed sect leader Warren Jeffs, have been indicted on charges of sexual assault of a child, allegations stemming from marriages to underage girls. Several face additional charges of bigamy.
Under Texas law, someone younger than 17 cannot generally consent to sex with an adult.
The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago. The FLDS believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven.
Jeffs, the sect's prophet, was convicted in Utah last year as an accomplice to rape for arranging the marriage of an underage girl to her older cousin. He faces trial on similar charges in Arizona before Texas prosecutors can pursue their case against him.
On the Net:
Texas Department of Family and Protective Services: http://www.dfps.state.tx.us/