SAN ANGELO, Texas – All the children taken from a polygamist group's Texas ranch are now back with their parents.
Child welfare officials said Wednesday that all 440 have been picked up since a judge ordered their return.
Families began trickling back to the Yearning For Zion Ranch on Tuesday — exactly two months after child welfare authorities and law enforcement first arrived at its battered metal gate looking for a caller to a domestic abuse hot line.
"We're sure grateful to be home," said Zavenda Young, whose 3-year-old daughter clung to her while her three sons, ages 5 to 9, stood nearby. "They can't believe it, for sure. Even though we drove all night, they hardly slept."
Willie Jessop, an elder with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, didn't know how many families plan to return to the ranch. He said some were cautious about bringing children back to the 1,700-acre spread they last saw when police clad in body armor raided the ranch's homes, school and temple, looking for evidence of underage girls pressed into marriage and sex.
"This is the scene of the crime, and the crime is not how they lived. It's how they were taken out of here," Jessop said.
The Texas Supreme Court ruled last week that the state overreached in the massive custody case by taking all children from the ranch when evidence of sexual abuse was limited to a few teenage girls.
Young's husband, Edson Jessop, said his family intends to stay at the ranch even though it's unclear what some of his fellow FLDS members will do. "We didn't build this place to walk away," he said.
Even as families returned to the ranch in Schleicher County, Sheriff David Doran said he believes the raid was handled appropriately and he expects some members to face criminal charges.
"This needed to be done. There was an outcry for help. There were crimes being uncovered. There were victims on the property," he said Tuesday, predicting indictments in the next several months.
The criminal investigation is being conducted by the Texas Attorney General's Office and Texas Rangers; no charges have been filed.
Parents began picking up their children on Monday after a judge, bowing to the high court's ruling, signed an order returning the children. One girl whose attorney requested she stay in custody will not leave foster care right away.
At foster facilities in Amarillo, Fort Worth and outside San Antonio, mothers in their now-familiar prairie dresses arrived to retake custody of their children. Most declined to comment to waiting reporters.
Seth Jeffs, the 35-year-old brother of jailed FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, arrived on Tuesday to pick up three sons, ages 8 to 12, at a boys ranch near Amarillo. He said the boys received good care at the facility.
Asked if they had anything to say, the boys shook their heads. "They're glad to be going home," their father said.
It was unclear how many families will return to the ranch in Eldorado, nearly 200 miles northwest of San Antonio. After their children were put in foster care in cities across Texas, many parents moved to be near them.
The families are not allowed to leave Texas under the order signed by Judge Barbara Walther, and parents must attend parenting classes and allow children to be examined as part of any abuse investigation.
They are not required to renounce polygamy, though Willie Jessop on Monday said the church would refuse to sanction marriages of any FLDS members who were not of legal age. He insisted the marriages have always been consensual.
The state removed all children from the ranch after an April 3 raid prompted by calls to a domestic abuse hot line that purportedly came from a 16-year-old mother who was being abused by her middle-age husband. The calls are now being investigated as a hoax.
The state agency claimed all the children were at risk because church officials pushed underage girls into marriage and sex. An appeals court and the Supreme Court, however, said the state failed to show any more than five teenage girls had been sexually abused and offered no evidence of abuse of the other children.
The agency plans to continue its investigation.
Walther's order does not end the separate criminal investigation into possible abuse. Texas authorities last week collected DNA from Warren Jeffs as part of an investigation into underage sex with girls, ages 12 to 15, at the ranch. He has been convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape and is jail in Arizona awaiting trial on similar charges.
The FLDS, which believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.