Polygamous sect's parents get kids back, vow to shun under-age marriages
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SAN ANGELO, Texas - Richard and Susan Barlow had seven different options to juggle as they mapped out how to retrieve eight children housed all over Texas.

They decided to start in San Antonio, where several daughters have spent nearly six weeks, and hit the road - only to realize an hour later, that in the excitement of the moment they had taken a wrong turn.

No matter. They changed course for Midland, where their 15-year-old daughter Lydia was waiting for them.

"I thank the Lord for sure blessing us with this opportunity and pray that we can walk the path humbly and carefully," Barlow said by telephone as he drove.

Sixty-one days after the first children were removed from a polygamous sect's ranch amid allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, a district judge sent them home.

District Judge Barbara Walther signed an order releasing the children without taking up two reunification plans prepared by dozens of attorneys Sunday. Two higher courts had said Walther lacked evidence to keep all of the children away from their parents.

Her order applies to all but one child: a 16-year-old girl whose attorney, Natalie Malonis, received a temporary restraining order to keep her in custody for at least three more days.

Malonis alleged in court Friday the girl may have a child that is being claimed by another woman, though she could not say who that woman is or where the child is staying.

But most parents, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, were picking up their children within hours of getting word of Walther's decision.

Attorneys for two legal aid firms who successfully petitioned to have the children released arrived at the courthouse at 8:15 a.m. and submitted their own reunification plans for the judge to sign. They worked over the weekend to draft it and gather FLDS mothers' signatures, which Walther said she wanted.

But Walther had already come up with her own plan.

"We're just happy an order's been signed. My clients are incredibly grateful and just want to pick up their children as soon as they can," said Julie Balovich, of Texas Rio-Grande Legal Aid, outside the courthouse.

Walther's order keeps the FLDS children under supervision of Texas Child Protective Services indefinitely.

Parents must agree to be photographed when they pick up their children, to be fingerprinted, provide identification, and attend "standard parenting classes."

They also must not interfere with CPS's ongoing investigation into alleged child abuse and neglect; allow CPS workers to visit, question and examine the children, both medically and psychologically, in their homes.

Further, the parents must provide a seven-day notice before any moves, and 48-hour notice of any travel more than 100 miles from their homes - and they are prohibited from leaving Texas with their children.

Rather than quibble about the conditions, lawyers who waged the court appeals talked about the reunions soon to be under way.

"The only focus at this time is to get the children home as quickly as possible," said Criselda Paz, of Legal Aid of Northwest Texas.

Delma Trejo, executive director of the ARK in Corpus Christi, said parents arrived before noon to fill out release forms. David Miller, executive director of the Hendrick Home in Abilene, said eight of the 12 FLDS children there left Monday and four others would leave today.

The Barlows were not the only parents making logistical decisions about where to go first.

Kirk Hawkins, a San Angelo attorney, said two of his clients were visiting sons in Amarillo today and will be able to take them home. But one also has children staying in Waco, Fort Worth and San Antonio.

"It's going to take a while" to reunite the family, he said.

At the YFZ Ranch late Monday afternoon, spokesman Willie Jessop said FLDS parents must now work to "mend so many broken hearts."

He asked news media to give parents and children time to reconnect, saying some have fared OK but others are traumatized. Some children hardly recognized their parents, he said; some had a hard time understanding they weren't going to be left behind again.

Jessop had a message for those who authorized the raid: "We call upon the Texas government to not get caught up in vindictive agendas of people who have no regard for the truth."

Marleigh Meisner, a CPS spokeswoman, said the agency was "very pleased" with the order because it continues the investigation while providing for the safe return of the children. She said CPS hopes to help FLDS families become "better parents."

The agency also still feels "very strongly" there is cause for concern for the children's safety, she said.

While the order does not prohibit parents from returning to the ranch, Jessop said many may take their time returning.

"We're leaving that decision up to them," he said, adding that some FLDS are definitely "trying to make the pilgrimage back."

Others are choosing to live elsewhere to show their willingness to work with CPS, attorneys said.

Andrea Sloan, an attorney with the Texas Advocacy Project who represented several women whose ages were disputed, said none planned to return to the ranch immediately.

Joseph S. Jessop Sr., 27, a father who was allowed to join his wife Lori, 25, and three children in San Antonio two weeks ago, planned to take a wait-and-see approach, too.

"We'll probably stay here for the time being and see how things pan out," he said.

Some FLDS had kind words for caseworkers and attorneys they had come to rely on over the past weeks.

"We felt like we met some good people with honest hearts," Barlow said.

Some attorneys felt that way, too. Balovich said the high point of the day came when one mother she represents called after picking up her children. The woman put the children on the phone.

"Hi Julie," they said in chorus.

"I had never gotten to hear their voices," Balovich said.

brooke@sltrib.com