1st reunions begin for sect families

June 2, 2008 1:25:55 PM PDT
A judge on Monday ordered the immediate return of more than 400 children taken from a polygamist sect's ranch, bringing an abrupt end to one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history. Texas District Judge Barbara Walther, responding to a state Supreme Court ruling last week, signed an order filed by attorneys for the parents and Child Protective Services, allowing the parents to begin picking their children up from foster care facilities around the state.

The first emotion-filled reunions came Monday afternoon, as parents trickled into foster care facilities to pick up their children.

"It's just a great day," said Nancy Dockstader, whose chin quivered and eyes filled with tears as she embraced her daughter, Amy, 9, outside the Baptist Children's Home Ministries Youth Ranch near San Antonio. "We're so grateful."

Nancy and James Dockstader said they have four other children to pick up in Corpus Christi and Amarillo.

"We'll get the rest of them," she said.

The sect's Yearning For Zion Ranch was raided in early April after state officials said the sect forces underage girls into marriage and sex. FLDS members denied any abuse.

The order signed by Walther 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. It also requires that parents allow state workers to make unannounced visits to the families and that they notify the state if they plan to travel more than 100 miles from their homes.

But it does not put restrictions on the children's fathers, require that polygamy be renounced or that parents live away from the Yearning For Zion Ranch.

Outside a Fort Worth shelter, where 31 children have been living, several girls wearing long, pastel-colored dresses played while waiting for their parents.

Two months in foster care has taken a toll on the children, who previously lived an insular life on the self-contained ranch where church teachings dominated the way of life, said Willie Jessop, an FLDS elder. He said he had hoped for a less restrictive order, without elaborating.

Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for Child Protective Services, said the agency was pleased with the order, and the investigation into possible abuse will continue.

"The safety of these children remains our only goal in this case," she said.

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 care. 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 FDLS denies any abuse of the children and says they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

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, the Third Court of Appeals ruled last week.

The FLDS, which teaches that polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.