EL DORADO, Texas – The massive custody case that swept 439 children from a polygamist sect's West Texas ranch into foster care has largely evaporated, with Texas authorities dropping all but a few dozen cases against parents.
All but 37 children from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado have been released from court oversight after Child Protective Services found they had not been abused or that their parents could protect them from the risk of future abuse. Only one girl has been returned to foster care.
The dismissals are good news because it means the children can safely remain with their parents, that questions about their safety have been resolved, said CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins.
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"CPS has taken a lot of criticism for this operation since April, but we've been doing everything we can to work with these families to ensure positive outcomes," he said. "If they're safe to the point where court oversight is no longer necessary, that's great news."
Authorities raided the ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in April after someone claiming to be an abused underaged mother called a domestic abuse hotline. Those calls are now being investigated as a possible hoax.
Following the raid, CPS swept all the children into state custody — one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history — claiming underage girls were being forced into marriages and sex and that the other children were at risk of abuse. They treated the ranch, which has more than a dozen sprawling homes, as a single household.
FLDS communities hold much of their goods in common, and members have work duties within the community. That lifestyle was disrupted by the state when parents moved to individual homes around Texas in an effort to get their children back, Jessop said.
"They disrupted the community and its ability to function as it was," he said, noting community members may now have to seek public assistance they never needed when the garden and dairy were fully operational.
Eight FLDS members, including jailed sect leader Warren Jeffs, have been indicted for sexual assault of a child, allegations stemming from marriages to underage girls. Several face additional charges of bigamy.
Under Texas law, someone younger than 17 cannot generally consent to sex with an adult.
Jessop said, however, the prosecutions are designed to justify the sweep of the sect's children from the ranch.
"We clearly believe in our innocence. We think it's selective prosecution to justify bad decisions," Jessop said.
Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, which is handling the prosecution, denied that.
"The grand jury heard evidence presented by the Attorney General's Office, and it was the grand jury who decided to bring these charges," he said.
The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago. The FLDS believe polygamy brings glorification in heaven.
Jeffs, the sect's prophet, was convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape last year for arranging the marriage of an underage girl to her older cousin. He faces trial on similar charges in Arizona before Texas prosecutors can pursue their case against him.