Texas Court Rules Against Seizures of FLDS Children
In a stunning reversal, the Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals reversed the District Judge who ruled last month that the children sized in the April 3, 2008 raid on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, should not have been taken by the State, saying “The Department did not present any evidence of danger.”
The judges did not order that the children be returned to Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, but they directed the lower court to vacate its order granting custody of the children to the state.
In its ruling, the Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals decided in favor of 38 women who had challenged the removals and appealed a decision last month by a district judge that the children remain in state custody.
"The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the department's witnesses, by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger," the three-judge panel said.
More than 450 children were removed from their homes on the Yearning for Zion Ranch, which is owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon offshoot that practices polygamy.
An attorney representing the mothers said the trial court that originally backed the state's seizure of the children has 10 days to vacate its decision. If it doesn't, the appeals court will act, said Julie Balovich of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
Although the ruling applies only to 38 mothers and their children represented in this case, "we believe the reasoning in the court of appeals decision would apply to all children," Balovich said.
After the state took custody of the children, the mothers appealed the order on the grounds the department failed to establish that the need for protection was urgent.
Because no such proof was presented, the mothers argued, the district court -- which backed the department's seizure of the children -- "was required to return the children to their parents and abused its discretion by failing to do so."
The appeals panel agreed.
"Evidence that children raised in this particular environment may someday 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," the panel wrote.
Outside the courthouse, Balovich said it was "ridiculous" how the courts had ignored the parents' rights.
"It was about time a court stood up and said that what has been happening to these families is wrong," she said.
Flanked by the FLDS mothers represented in the case, Balovich said authorities considered the YFZ Ranch one household, an assertion with which the appeals court did not agree.
Therefore, proving that there was abuse in one household did not mean the state could apply that behavior to the entire ranch.
"This was the right decision," Balovich said, adding that she and her clients are "ecstatic about this news."
The authenticity of the initial abuse reports that turned authorities' attention on the ranch is in question, the court noted in its ruling.
Police have alleged that a family shelter crisis line received multiple calls March 29 and 30 from a caller claiming to be Sarah Jessop Barlow, age 16.
At least one of the telephones used by "Sarah Barlow" has been traced to a Colorado woman. Police say Rozita Swinton is a person of interest in connection with the reports of abuse at the ranch, but she has not been charged. She does, however, face a charge of providing a false report to authorities in a Colorado case.