SAN ANGELO, Texas - More than 400 children taken from a polygamous sect's ranch two months ago began returning to the arms of their tearful parents yesterday, 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 five 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.
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. She allowed parents to begin picking up their children yesterday, ending one of the nation's largest child-custody cases.
Mrs. 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 Mrs. Dockstader, who was clad in a teal prairie dress and clinging to Amy, who wore a matching dress.
The judge'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 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 yesterday, elder Willie Jessop said the church won't allow underage girls to marry. He said the new policy will forbid any girl to marry who is not of legal consent age in the state where she lives.
Mr. Jessop said the church has been widely misunderstood, but he said the church will not sanction marriages of underage girls and will counsel members against such unions. He insisted marriages within the church have always been consensual.
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 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.
Marleigh Meisner, a spokesman for the child-protection agency, said authorities still have concerns about the children's safety, and the investigation into possible abuse would continue.