Texas sect children reunited with parents

June 3, 2008 3:51:59 AM PDT
Jennetta Jessop fought back tears when she was reunited with her 5-year-old son, two months after the state raided her polygamist sect's ranch and took away her children. "I just love my children so much," said Jessop, who picked up her son Monday at a Fort Worth shelter and had four other children to collect. "This is the happiest day of my life."

Parents took 129 of the roughly 430 children in foster care on Monday after a judge signed an order clearing the children to leave with their parents, bowing to a state Supreme Court ruling that the seizure was not justified.

Child welfare officials expected many of the remaining children to go home Tuesday as parents traveled across the sprawling state to foster facilities where the children were scattered.

Amid the parents' joy, a church elder announced what he called a clarification in sect policy aimed at keeping such a seizure from ever happening again: Future marriages would only involve sect members who were of legal age.

"The church will counsel families that they neither request nor consent to any underage marriages," Willie Jessop said late Monday, reading from a statement at the ranch in Eldorado. Many sect members have the same last name but may or may not be related.

Willie Jessop said the church has been widely misunderstood and insisted marriages within the church have always been consensual. He would not say whether marriages of underage minors had taken place in the past but said the sect as a whole should not be punished for the misdeeds of a few.

Judge Barbara Walther's order requires the parents to stay in Texas, to attend parenting classes and to allow the children to be examined as part of any abuse investigation.

But it does not put restrictions on the children's fathers, require the parents renounce polygamy or force them to leave the Yearning For Zion Ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway sect of the Mormon church.

Child Protective Services removed all the children from the ranch after an April 3 raid prompted by calls to a domestic abuse hot line that purportedly came from a 16-year-old mother who was being abused by her middle-age husband. The calls are now being investigated as a hoax, but authorities contended all the children were at risk because church teachings pushed underage girls into marriage and sex.

The church has denied any children were abused, and members have said they are being persecuted for their religion, which believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven.

Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for the child-protection agency, said authorities still have concerns about the children's safety, and the investigation into possible abuse would continue.

The Supreme Court last week affirmed an appeals court ruling that found the agency overreached by putting all the sect children, including infants and boys, in foster care.

The high court and the appeals court rejected the state's argument that all the children were in immediate danger from what it said was sexual abuse of teenage girls at the ranch and the grooming of boys to become perpetrators.

The Third Court of Appeals ruled that the state failed to show that any more than five of the teenage girls were being sexually abused, and had offered no evidence of sexual or physical abuse against the other children.

All the children, including any underage mothers, will now be allowed to go back to their parents, though it's possible some children's attorneys or child-protection officials could pursue further action in individual cases. One girl's attorney filed a motion asking that she remain in state custody.

It's not clear how many might return to the ranch right away. Many of the parents have purchased or rented homes around the state.

FLDS spokesman Rod Parker said some of the attorneys have advised parents to stay away from the ranch for now, but most families want to return.

Walther's order does not end a separate criminal investigation. Texas authorities last week collected DNA from jailed FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs as part of investigation into underage sex with girls, ages 12 to 15. He has been convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape and is jail in Arizona awaiting trial on separate charges.

Meanwhile, in western Canada, British Columbia's top lawyer on Monday appointed a special prosecutor to look into allegations of sexual misconduct within a polygamous community there.

The group in Bountiful has about 1,500 people including about 500 U.S. citizens. Attorney General Wally Oppal said the prosecutor will examine if there should be charges for polygamy, sexual assault, sexual exploitation or a combination of charges.

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