- The missing woman's mother wants to visit her grandchildren
- A judge rules child welfare authorities cannot keep the children
- The 3-year-old twins had been taken into state protective custody
- Police say their father is the prime suspect in their mother's disappearance
A Florida judge ruled Wednesday that a missing woman's 3-year-old twins must be returned to their father, saying there is not enough evidence for state child welfare officials to keep them.
The state Department of Children and Families placed the twins in protective custody Tuesday night. Authorities say their father, Dale Smith, is the primary focus of a police investigation into the disappearance of their mother, Michelle Parker.
Smith and Parker, who were engaged at one time, had joint custody of the twins.
The child welfare agency argued in a hearing Wednesday that the children were taken from their father because there was a risk of harm, alleging Smith was abusive to the children and Parker.
Relatives of both Smith and Parker were in the courtroom. Parker's mother, Yvonne Stewart, broke into tears when Circuit Judge Thomas W. Turner said, "We all pray for her safe return. ... We pray that she is alive."
Parker and Smith appeared on an episode of "The People's Court" that aired hours before Parker was reported missing on November 17. The segment had been taped months earlier.
She was last seen driving near Orlando. Her last known communication was a brief, seemingly innocuous text message to her brother that same day, according to the Facebook page devoted to her case.
Parker's sister, Lauren Erickson, said Parker and Smith met about five years ago. They were estranged, and "The People's Court" episode revolved around their dispute over who would get a $5,000 engagement ring, with Judge Marilyn Milian eventually suggesting they split the proceeds and stay apart.
Yvonne Parker said Smith told her he would work out visitation with the twins.
"I hugged Dale to tell him that my grandbabies -- I want to be able to see them and I hope we can work something out because they are so important to me and my family," she said.
Erickson told HLN's Vinnie Politan the court proceedings were difficult. "None of us know what will happen in the end."
On Tuesday, Smith's attorney brushed off suggestions that the "People's Court" episode could have provided a motive for Smith to harm Parker.
"He didn't look bad. He won," Mark NeJame said. "So there's no motive. ...There's not, like, saying, 'Ah, I looked like an idiot in front of the world because of what you put me through.'"
Wednesday, NeJame told reporters Smith's place is at home, taking care of the twins.
"By all accounts he's been a wonderful father and these children have been destabilized enough," the attorney said.
He said Smith is entitled to a presumption of innocence in Parker's disappearance.
"There's not enough evidence to arrest him," NeJame said. "For that, you want to take away a person's children because some people on blogs are on a feeding frenzy?"
Meanwhile, authorities Wednesday were searching an area near Lake Ellenor in southern Orange County as part of the investigation into Parker's disappearance, according to CNN affiliate WKMG-TV.
Carrie Hoeppner with the Department of Children and Families said the agency got involved with the case on November 19 after it received calls on its abuse hotline alleging past domestic violence incidents between Smith and Parker.
The children were interviewed on several occasions before the agency decided to take them into custody, Hoeppner said.