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Updated: 6:17 PM- SAN ANGELO, Texas - The Texas Supreme Court on Friday ruled that the state must return some 130 children taken into state custody following an early April raid on a polygamous sect's West Texas ranch.
However, the decision likely will affect about 320 other children from the ranch who now are living in foster homes and shelters throughout the state, attorneys for their parents said.
By a six-to-three majority, the justices decided that a district court judge improperly removed the children, like their parents members of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The ruling was met with jubilation by parents and attorneys representing the families. Maggie Jessop, whose children are in state custody in two cities, said she had waited anxiously for such an outcome.
"I just feel very thankful that the Supreme Court would have a righteous decision," said Jessop, who moved from the ranch to San Angelo midway between her daughter's and son's shelters in San Antonio and Amarrillo.
Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Families and Protective Services, which had asked the court to rule in its favor, said the agency was "disappointed but we understand and respect the court's decision and will take immediate steps to comply. 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," Meisner said. "We will continue to prepare for the prompt and orderly reunification of these children with their families."
The high court, which released its decision at 4 p.m. Central time, found that 51st District Judge Barbara Walther had ruled improperly to take the children into state custody and upheld a subsequent decision by the Third Court of Appeals that the children should be returned.
In its brief opinion, the court said "we are not inclined to disturb the Court of Appeals' decision. On the record before us, removal of the children was not warranted."
Kevin Dietz of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid said he would work with the courts and Child Protective Services, a division of DFPS, to do what's in the best interest of the children.
"Right now, that means reuniting these families," he said.
DFPS had argued the appellate decision left it unable to guard the children's safety from what it had deemed imminent danger of sexual and physical abuse due to the FLDS practice of polygamy. The state contended that the FLDS condoned marriages of underage girls to men and groomed its boys to continue the practice.
In early April, Walther authorized the raid and subsequently ruled the children would remain in state custody.
The state Supreme Court, however, found that Texas' family code gives the district court broad authority to protect children short of separating them from their parents and placing them in foster care or shelters. For example, the lower court could have issued a restraining order barring the children from being taken out of state or ordering the removal of any perpetrators from their homes, the justices said.
That said, CPS still can work with the parents when the children are in their care to insure their safety and well-being.
The high court said Walther must vacate her temporary custody order, but she can grant other steps to protect the children.
"While there are other important fundamental issues in the case regarding parent rights, it is premature of us to discuss those issues," the justices added.
Immediately after the ruling, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid send an e-mail with this headline: "Supreme Court to CPS: send these children home."
Said Dietz: "It's great to see that the court system is working in the interest of justice. These mothers have never given up their fight to bring their families back together."
Dan Barlow, a former mayor of Colorado City, Ariz., and a father of four children in state custody in Abilene, said, "I hope it will all work. I'm thankful and I want those children back with their mothers. It is the right thing to do."
Tribune reporter Julia Lyon contributed to this report.