Judge orders return of FLDS kids

SAN ANGELO, TX "It's just great day," said Nancy Dockstader, whose chin quivered and eyes filled with tears as she embraced her 9-year-old daughter, Amy, outside a foster facility in Gonzales. "We're so grateful."

Her daughter and four other children housed at other foster facilities were among roughly 430 children who were being allowed to go home after two months in state custody.

Texas District Judge Barbara Walther responded to a state Supreme Court ruling last week by signing an order filed by attorneys for the parents and Child Protective Services allowing parents to begin picking up their children Monday. Because siblings were separated at facilities hundreds of miles apart, it will likely take several days for all the families to be reunited.

Dockstader and her husband, James, were headed to Corpus Christi on the Gulf of Mexico and to Amarillo in northwest Texas to pick up their other children. "We'll get the rest of them," she said, clad in a teal prairie dress and clinging to Amy.

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 ongoing child abuse investigation.

But it does not put restrictions on the children's fathers, require that polygamy is renounced or that parents live away from the Yearning For Zion Ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

CPS removed all the children from the ranch after an April 3 raid prompted by calls to a domestic abuse hotline, purportedly by a 16-year-old mother who was being abused by her middle-age husband. The calls are now being investigated as a hoax, but CPS 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 says they are being persecuted for their religion, which believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven.

Marleigh Meisner, a CPS spokeswoman, said the agency is pleased with the order, and the investigation into possible abuse will continue.

"We have concerns about the safety of these children," she said. "We're going to continue with our investigation."

The Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed an appeals court ruling ordering Walther to reverse her decision in April putting all children from the ranch into foster case. The Supreme Court and the appeals court rejected the state's argument that all the children were in immediate danger from what it said was a cycle of sexual abuse of teenage girls at the ranch.

Half the children sent to foster care were no older than 5.

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 be allowed to go back to their parents under Walther's order, though it's possible some children's attorneys or CPS could pursue further action in individual cases.

It's not clear how many might return to the ranch right away. Many of the parents have purchased or rented homes in Amarillo, San Antonio and other places around the state.

FLDS spokesman Rod Parker said some of the attorneys have advised parents to stay in housing away from the ranch for the time being, but most families want to return to the ranch so the children can continue the homeschool education they were getting at the sect's on-site schoolhouse before the raid.

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.

The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

- Headlines at a glance

Copyright © 2023 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.