Judge Barbara Walther
AUSTIN, Texas (Legal Newsline)--A Texas appeals court ruled Thursday that a San Angelo judge exceeded her discretion when she ordered the state to take custody of more than 460 children from a polygamous sect.
The order by the Third Court of Appeals in Austin said State District Judge Barbara Walther abused her discretion when she ordered the children seized and gave her 10 days to vacate her order.
It was not immediately clear whether the order means the children will be immediately returned to their custody of their parents, followers of a breakaway Mormon sect called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Houston Chronicle reported.
"We're extremely happy with the ruling," Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, which represented 48 mothers in its custody suit against the state, told the Chronicle.
Martinez said she was not certain how soon the children might be returned to the 1,700-acre ranch.
Child welfare officials removed the children alleging that the sect pushed underage girls into marriage and sex and trained boys to become future perpetrators.
A spokesman for Child Protective Services said attorneys were reviewing the order and a decision regarding an appeal would be made later.
"The way that the courts have ignored the legal rights of these mothers is ridiculous," said TRLA attorney Julie Balovich. "It was about time a court stood up and said that was has been happening to these families is wrong."
In the decision, the court ruled that CPS failed to provide any evidence that the children were in imminent danger and acted hastily in removing them from their families.
"The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the Department's witnesses, by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger," the court ruled.
Texas officials estimate it would cost the state about $21 million next year to provide foster care for the children.