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Texas warns families in polygamy case could flee

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  • Texas officials suggest sect members could flee to communities in Utah or Arizona
  • State documents: If members flee, they would leave jurisdiction of Texas courts
  • Appeals court ruled state had no right to remove children from ranch
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(CNN) -- Members of a polygamist sect whose children were removed by Texas authorities could flee the state if a lower court ruling stands, according to lawyers for the state.

A family waits at a San Antonio, Texas, courthouse last week for a reunion with a seized child.

If sect members were to flee, they also would leave the courts' jurisdiction, attorneys for the state Child Protection Services said in court filings Tuesday to the Texas Supreme Court.

The case involves 38 mothers from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon offshoot that practices polygamy, and their 124 children.

In a ruling last week, the Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals said the state had no right to remove those children in April from the Yearning For Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas. Although that ruling applied only to those 124 children, attorneys said the reasoning could apply to all the youths removed during the raid -- about 460. (Up to 20 of those later were found in court to be adults.)

In the state's appeal, filed Friday, the lawyers maintained FLDS members live in an environment in which the sexual abuse of young girls, through forced marriage to older men, is allowed, and young boys are groomed to be perpetrators. Lawyers for CPS said the appeals court overstepped its authority in making the ruling and have asked the Texas high court to intervene.

In a response, attorneys for the women said the children face "continuing, irreparable harm every day that they are separated from their parents."

In the documents filed Tuesday, state officials suggested the mothers and children could flee Texas to the FLDS communities of Hildale, Utah, or Colorado City, Arizona. If they do, the documents said, no court in Texas could have any authority to enter orders aimed at protecting the children.

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On Friday, child welfare officials agreed to release 12 children taken from the ranch to their parents, while state courts weigh the cases of hundreds of others. Some of the children were reunited with their parents shortly after the agreement, which came after a hearing in San Antonio, said Rene Haas, an attorney for Joseph Steed Jessop Sr. and his wife, Lori. The Jessops' three children were among those released.

Under the agreement, the children must stay in Bexar County, Texas, under minimal supervision until the state Supreme Court weighs in on the massive custody case. It was unclear whether the pact would affect any of the other cases.

In a filing Tuesday to the Texas Supreme Court, attorneys for the mothers said that decision undermines CPS' contention that all the children on the ranch were at risk. They said the decision also undermines officials' assertion that they don't know which parents to reunite with which children because of incomplete DNA testing.

The appeals court ruled that CPS could not consider the entire ranch as one household. Child welfare officials maintain the ranch is one community.

But the mothers' attorneys said in court documents that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees CPS, "has been treating parents and children as identifiable family units since the beginning of the case, allowing -- and even requiring -- visitation, and presenting the parents with family service plans describing the department's requirements for reunification. ... The department does not attempt to explain away this inconsistency. In fact, the department chooses to ignore it. This court should not."

FLDS members have denied any physical or sexual abuse takes place, maintaining they face persecution for their religious beliefs. The sect's leader, Warren Jeffs, is in a Utah prison after a conviction on charges of being an accomplice to rape in connection with a marriage he performed in 2001. Jeffs also faces trial in Arizona on eight charges, including sexual conduct with a minor, incest and conspiracy.

The authenticity of the initial telephone calls that focused authorities' attention on the ranch is in question. Police allege a family shelter crisis line received multiple calls on March 29 and 30 from someone claiming to be Sarah Jessop Barlow, 16. The caller reported that she had an 8-month-old baby and was pregnant again and that she was married to Dale Barlow, who allegedly abused her physically and sexually.

At least one of the phones used by this caller has been traced to a Colorado woman, authorities have said.

Police have named the woman a person of interest in connection with the reports of abuse at the ranch, but she has not been charged.

She faces charges of providing a false report to authorities in a separate case in Colorado.

All About Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

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