Children should not have been removed from polygamous sect: court

Authorities had no right to seize hundreds of children from a west Texas polygamist ranch, an appeal court ruled on Thursday.

Authorities had no right to seize hundreds of children from a west Texas polygamist ranch, an appeal court ruled on Thursday, saying the state's child welfare department did not prove the children were in immediate danger.

The Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled that the grounds for removing the children were "legally and factually insufficient." Under Texas law, there must be proof that the children are in imminent danger before they can be removed without court action.

It's not clear, though, what the fate of the children will be. The ruling gave a lower-court judge 10 days to release the youngsters from state custody, but the state could appeal to the Texas Supreme Court and block that from happening.

In its decision, the court said the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services "did not present any evidence of danger to the physical health or safety of any male children or any female children who had not reached puberty."

"Evidence that children raised in this particular environment may some day have their physical health and safety threatened is not evidence that the danger is imminent enough to warrant invoking the extreme measure of immediate removal prior to full litigation of the issue," according to the ruling.

"Even if one views the FLDS belief system as creating a danger of sexual abuse by grooming boys to be perpetrators of sexual abuse and raising girls to be victims of sexual abuse … there is no evidence that this danger is 'immediate' or 'urgent'," the court said.

More than 400 children were removed from the compound, owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in April after a 16-year-old called an abuse hotline alleging that her husband, a 50-year-old member of the sect, beat and raped her. Authorities have yet to locate the girl and are investigating whether the call was a hoax.

Child welfare officials had alleged in court documents that the children were in danger of "emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse" at the 700-hectare compound in the town of Eldorado, about 300 kilometres northwest of San Antonio.

Despite the court ruling, the Department of Family and Protective Services issued a statement Thursday defending the raid, saying it removed the children "after finding a pervasive pattern of sexual abuse that puts every child at the ranch at risk."

Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, members said the state was persecuting them for their faith, and they deny children were abused.

The case involves children ranging in age from six months to 17 years. Roughly 100 of the children are under the age of four. More than half of the teenaged girls from the compound  were pregnant or had children.

"It’s a great day for families in Texas. It’s a great day for Texas justice. This was the right decision," said Julie Balovich, a lawyer representing FLDS members.

Balovich said the court agreed with their argument that if there were cases of abuse, that can’t be applied to the whole ranch,

"All along we have argued that the department was required to prove their case against every individual person," she said.

"And the court of appeal looked at that entire record and saw they did not prove their case," Balovich said.

With files from the Associated Press