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Heidi Mattingly

It was three years ago this month that two teenage girls had their ears pierced without their parents' permission and police were called after the girls said they feared their father's wrath.

That sparked an investigation into claims of child abuse in a family that is part of the polygamous Kingston clan that resulted in a lengthy custody battle that came to an end Friday.

The Utah Supreme Court ruled that 3rd District Juvenile Court Judges Elizabeth Lindsley and Andrew Valdez made the correct legal choice when returning legal custody of nine children to their mother, Heidi Mattingly, who has had 11 children with polygamist John Daniel Kingston. Valdez, who had the case initially, later recused himself.

The unanimous decision stated that Lindsley did not "erroneously confuse" a legal standard regarding the safety of the children with another standard that addressed whether Mattingly "substantially complied" with court orders.

The Supreme Court did say Lindsley made a mistake by excluding testimony from an expert witness for the state but found that error to be harmless.

Although the tug-of-war over the children ostensibly was sparked by the ear-piercing incident, the issues in the case ran deeper, delving into questions of child mistreatment, Utah's ambivalent feelings about its polygamist past and even claims by a Kingston teenager that there was a plot afoot to murder a judge and blow up the courthouse.

Mattingly on Friday said she was delighted.

"I'm very pleased with their decision," she said. "I'm pleased, too, with the fact that they ruled on the issue itself" — whether the judge erred in sending the children home — "rather than just saying it wasn't timely for the (Office of the Guardian ad Litem) to appeal it."

Mattingly believes this will establish case law that will help other parents in the future.

Along the way, Kingston and Mattingly voluntarily relinquished their parental rights to their two oldest daughters, and those girls, who are now 15 and 18, asked to be adopted by other families.

Mattingly has always retained physical custody of the youngest child, a girl who is now 2 1/2.

Mattingly said the impact of the ongoing battle with the government has been devastating for her family.

"It destroyed us. We have two less children than we did three years ago," she said, referring to the two girls who no longer are legally relatives and with whom there is no communication.

Mattingly said her children were terrified of being taken away and placed in either foster care or juvenile detention centers. But now that they are home, she said they are thriving and doing well in school.

"My family is healthy, but it has been wounded," she said. "I'm a lot wiser than I was three years ago, and not as trusting as I used to be."

Mattingly, now 35, said her view of government has not been altered, but she's learned a great deal about the juvenile court system that she never knew before and has seen things within it that she would like to have improved.

Guardian ad Litem Kristin Brewer declined comment on the ruling. Assistant Attorney General Carolyn Nichols, who represented the state, also declined comment.

The long-running court fight started when state officials filed an abuse and neglect petition regarding 10 of the children on July 6, 2004. (Mattingly was pregnant with the youngest at the time.)

Third District Juvenile Judge Andrew Valdez found the 10 children had been abused and neglected by both Kingston and Mattingly, and after the baby was born, the judge also deemed her to be "at risk" and put her under the court's jurisdiction.

That began a series of highly publicized court hearings. Valdez at one point ordered Mattingly to live in a shelter for battered women and arranged for individual therapy and a unique form of group therapy involving abused polygamous women.

The case was transferred to Lindsley after Valdez's son, Tito, got into a brief scuffle with pro-Kingston protesters outside the courthouse who were disparaging Valdez. Tito Valdez was cited for tossing one of the protester's signs into the street.

During one hearing on Feb. 8, 2005, one of the Kingston daughters who is no longer in the family testified there was a plot by various Kingstons to kill Valdez, murder state lawyers, blow up the courthouse and kidnap the other children from foster care, spiriting them away to hidden compounds in Idaho. The teen also testified Kingston relatives had coached her to attempt suicide.

As a result, heavy security was arranged for Valdez and the courthouse.

Mattingly said she and Kingston are still disputing the legality of that emergency hearing because it can be used to classify them as terrorists, which would strip them of many constitutional protections.

Kingston pleaded no contest to third-degree felony child abuse and served 28 weeks in the Box Elder County Jail in 1999 for beating a 16-year-old daughter who has a different mother than Mattingly. The girl had run away from an arranged marriage with Kingston's brother, who had 14 other wives.