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Texas high court: Removal of sect kids 'not warranted'

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  • NEW: "Put these families back," FLDS member says
  • "We are not inclined to disturb the court of appeals' decision," ruling says
  • Court ruled in the case of 38 mothers who'd appealed removal of their 126 children
  • Attorneys: Reasoning behind rulings can be applied to removals of all the kids
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SAN ANGELO, Texas (CNN) -- Texas officials had no right to remove about 460 children from a polygamist sect, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The Texas Supreme Court agreed with a lower court's ruling, that the state's Child Protective Services division did not present ample evidence that the children were being abused.

The state said it removed the children last month from the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas, because in interviews with those living there, officials found what they called a "pervasive pattern" of sexual abuse through forced marriages between underage girls and older men.

The high court ruling could clear the way for the children to be returned to their families. The sect subscribes to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon offshoot that practices polygamy.

"We are not inclined to disturb the court of appeals' decision," the ruling said. "On the record before us, removal of the children was not warranted." Video Watch what the ruling may mean »

The court's 6-3 ruling came in the case of 38 mothers who had appealed the removal of their children, but attorneys in the case have said the reasoning behind the court rulings can be applied to the removals of all the children from the ranch during the raid, which began April 3.

About 460 children were removed, although 20 were found in court to be adults.

It's unlikely the children will be returned to their homes soon, because it's unclear which child belongs to which parent. A DNA testing order by the district court is incomplete.

And even if the children do return to the YFZ Ranch, the case may not be over. The justices noted that Texas law gives the district court "broad authority to protect children short of separating them from their parents and placing them in foster care."

Examples of those conditions might be a court order saying a child must remain in a certain geographical area or an order removing an alleged perpetrator from the child's home, the district court said.

An FLDS member applauded the Texas Supreme Court ruling Thursday.

"When we'd given up hope on the system and we'd made a plea to every politician there is, it ends up being some kindhearted attorneys that were willing to take up this fight," Willie Jessop said outside the courthouse in San Angelo after the ruling was issued.

"Put these families back. There has been a catastrophic emotional and physical trauma to these families, permanent damage that will be left on them for a lifetime. Two wrongs do not make a right, and the court has the ability to load these children up and return them." Video Watch Jessop urge that the children be returned »

He emphasized that the fellow FLDS members he knows do not allow their children to marry unless they are of age.

"I would like to call on [Child Protective Services] and the state of Texas to end this nightmare," said Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City, Utah, attorney who has been a spokesman for FLDS families. "It is time for the children to come home. It is time for the state of Texas to lay down arms here and solve this problem."

State officials have said the sect, with its polygamist beliefs, groomed young boys on the ranch to be abusers. FLDS members deny any sexual abuse at the ranch and claim that they are being persecuted because of their religion.

The district court said in its ruling that CPS did not demonstrate that all the children on the ranch faced imminent danger, as necessary for their removal.

CPS said it will work to reunite children covered under the ruling with their parents.

"We are disappointed, but we understand and respect the court's decision and will take immediate steps to comply," a statement reads. "Child Protective Services has one purpose in this case -- to protect the children. Our goal is to reunite families whenever we can do so and make sure the children will be safe."

CPS will continue working with the district court to make sure that the children remain safe and that the agency's actions comply with the ruling.

In the Texas Supreme Court decision, the three dissenting justices said in an attached opinion that they agreed that the state had no right to remove the young boys from the ranch but that the district court did not err in electing to remove pubescent girls from the ranch and keep them in state custody.

The pubescent girls are "demonstrably endangered," Justice Harriet O'Neill wrote.

FLDS leader and "prophet" Warren Jeffs, 52, is in a Utah prison, serving two consecutive terms of five years to life after being convicted on two charges of being an accomplice to rape in connection with a marriage he performed in 2001. He also faces trial in Arizona on eight charges, including sexual conduct with a minor, incest and conspiracy.

Jeffs' trial thrust the normally secretive FLDS into the national spotlight, and the raid on the YFZ Ranch last month intensified scrutiny on the sect.

In addition to the YFZ Ranch, the FLDS is prevalent in the twin border communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.

It was not immediately clear whether the Texas Supreme Court ruling would be appealed. In theory, it could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, said CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, but the court would be unlikely to weigh in because the case relates exclusively to Texas law.

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Texas attorney Barbara Elias-Perciful supported the state in her filing. She has been a guardian ad litem -- an attorney representing children's interests -- in child protection cases for 16 years and is also the director of Texas Lawyers for Children.

"This case involves the systematic rape of minor children -- conduct that is institutionalized and euphemistically called 'spiritual marriage,'" she wrote. "Typically, there is no media coverage of the horrific acts sexual predators commit against children ... if the media showed the actual events of adult males demanding sex with 11-year-old girls, there would be no one questioning the graphic danger of returning these children to their home at this time."

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