SAN ANGELO, Texas – More than 400 children taken from a polygamist sect’s ranch two months ago began returning to the arms of their tearful parents Monday, hours after a judge bowed to a state Supreme Court ruling that the seizure was not justified.
“It’s just a 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-care center in Gonzales, about 65 miles east of San Antonio. “We’re so grateful.”
Her daughter and four other children were among the roughly 430 children ordered released after two months in state custody, much of it spent in foster care centers. Because siblings were separated at facilities hundreds of miles apart, it will probably take several days for all the families to be reunited.
On Monday, 129 children were returned to their parents. A church leader also said any future marriages would only involve sect members who were of legal age.
Judge Barbara Walther responded to a state Supreme Court ruling last week by signing an order that cleared the children to be released from foster care. Walther allowed parents to begin picking up their children Monday, ending one of the nation’s largest child-custody cases.
Dockstader and her husband, James, were headed to Corpus Christi and to Amarillo to pick up their other children. “We’ll get the rest of them,” said Dockstader, who was clad in a teal prairie dress and clinging to Amy, who wore a matching dress.
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 that 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.
Late Monday, elder Willie Jessop said the church won’t allow underage girls to marry. 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 will counsel families that they neither request nor consent to any underage marriages,” he said, reading from a statement at the ranch in Eldorado.
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.
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.
The Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed an appeals court ruling that reversed Walther’s decision in April putting all children from the ranch into foster care.