ELDORADO, Texas — The same day a judge signed an order returning hundreds of FLDS children taken in the raid to their anxious parents, the polygamous sect pledged to no longer perform underage marriages.

"In the future, the church commits that it will not preside over the marriage of any woman under the age of legal consent in the jurisdiction in which the marriage takes place," Fundamentalist LDS Church member Willie Jessop said Monday, reading from a statement. "The church will counsel families that they neither request nor consent to any underage marriages. This policy will apply church-wide."

Jessop stood on a dirt road here at the YFZ Ranch in the hot sun, wearing his Sunday best as he spoke passionately about the reunions taking place, and the pain that FLDS faithful have endured.

"With the help of thousands of prayers that have been offered, we believe that God can start to mend so many broken and devastated hearts," he said.

Families will be criss-crossing Texas today — sometimes traveling hundreds of miles to pick up their children from foster care facilities in happy reunions, exactly two months after the children were taken in the raid that became the nation's largest-ever child custody case.

Susan Hays, a Dallas attorney appointed by the courts to represent a little girl in state custody, picked up her client's mother and has been driving her across Texas to retrieve the child.

"The little girl is sleeping right now after we played a game of spot the cows," Hays chuckled over the phone, the sound of the freeway behind her.

The order

As soon as the Tom Green County Courthouse opened on Monday, lawyers representing a group of FLDS mothers marched in and presented their order to the judge.

It was one of several put before Judge Barbara Walther.

"We gave her an order and we're pleased she signed an order," said Julie Balovich, a lawyer for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which represents 48 mothers who challenged the decision to place their children in foster care.

The order requires parenting classes, cooperation in an ongoing child abuse investigation, including unannounced home visits, and interviews between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. It also requires all children involved in the custody case to remain in Texas unless they get prior approval from the court. It does not require families to renounce their faith or leave the YFZ Ranch.

"We are grateful that the court at least allowed mothers and children to come back," Jessop said. "We wished it was a better order, but hey, it gets the children and the mothers back, and we'll take it."

Jessop said the requirements continue to blanket the entire community with allegations.

"Our only focus at this time is to get the children home as quickly as possible. That's all we're going to be focusing our attention on the next few days," said Criselda Pac, an attorney for Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, which represents five FLDS mothers. "It's not an agreed order, it's the court's own order."

The Texas Supreme Court and Austin's 3rd Court of Appeals both ruled that Texas child welfare authorities acted improperly in removing more than 450 children from the YFZ Ranch while they investigated allegations of abuse. The courts ordered Walther to return the children to their parents, but allowed her to set conditions. The judge offered her own order, giving CPS broad authority, only to abruptly walk off the bench on Friday during negotiations.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid had gathered enough signatures from FLDS mothers to push the judge to sign its original agreement, but instead this latest version became the order.

"My clients are incredibly grateful and they really hope that their children get to come home," Balovich said. "They're ready to pick them up as soon as they can."

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services was pleased with the court's order.

"It accomplishes two important goals. It allows the children to be returned safely to their families and caregivers in a prompt and orderly manner," agency spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said. "Second, the court's order ensures that the state's investigation of abuse and neglect continues with strong provisions in place to prevent interference and ensure compliance by the parents. The safety of these children remains our only goal in this case."

While the order returns all of the FLDS children, it does not end the child welfare investigation into allegations of abuse and neglect on the YFZ Ranch. That investigation will now enter a new phase with Texas Child Protective Services having to prove abuse individually — instead of en masse like the judge's decision in April that placed hundreds of children into state custody.

"It remains to be seen what the process is going to look like for the investigation," said Laura Shockley, an attorney representing a group of young women the state alleged to be minors but were really adults.

The parents are willing to participate in the investigation, attorneys said. Some will not be returning to the YFZ Ranch to make a good-faith showing with CPS.

Jessop called on Texas officials not to get caught up in "vindictive agendas" and said it will take time for the families and children to heal from the horror of the raid.

Texas CPS has claimed that there is a culture of sex abuse on the YFZ Ranch, with girls groomed to become child brides, and boys growing up to be sexual perpetrators. Meisner said they continue to have concerns about the safety of the children and defended CPS's role in the investigation.

"I certainly hope they'll be cooperative. Certainly we have concerns about these children," she said Monday. "That's why our investigation continues."

Not all children

The order reunites all of the children in state protective custody with their parents — with one exception.

A court-appointed lawyer representing a girl in state protective custody filed an emergency motion to delay any reunification for her client, whom she said is a sex abuse victim.

Attorney Natalie Malonis said the child is also a mother in state custody, and in her motion, she said the court's order would cause "immediate and irreparable harm to the physical safety and welfare of the child." The judge granted her order.

Malonis tried to bring up the request before Walther on Friday, but was told to wait because it didn't apply to the other children. She waited, but then the judge left the bench without addressing her concerns.

"I'm working with her mother's attorney and we are going to enter our own orders that are just a little more tailored to my client," she told the Deseret News on Monday.

The YFZ Ranch was raided April 3 when Texas child welfare workers and law enforcement went to the FLDS property on a report of a 16-year-old girl who was pregnant and in an abusive, polygamous marriage to an older man. The girl was never found, an arrest warrant for the alleged husband was dropped and Texas authorities are still investigating whether the original call was a hoax.

Once on the ranch, authorities said they found other signs of abuse, prompting Walther to order the removal of all of the FLDS children.

Texas child welfare authorities had claimed to have as many as 31 pregnant or underage mothers in custody. They were young women the FLDS insisted were adults. Shockley told the Deseret News that CPS has declared all but "four or five" to be adults.

"They all had birthdays last Friday," attorney Andrea Sloan quipped.

CPS could not immediately confirm the status of the "disputed minors."

Jessop said "nothing is off the table" when asked about the possibility of a civil lawsuit against Texas, adding that it depends on what the state does going forward.

Reading from a prepared statement, Jessop said the FLDS policies have been misrepresented and misunderstood.

"Indeed, much of the misinformation circulating on this subject seems designed to intentionally fuel the flames of prejudice against the church," he said.

Jessop said the FLDS marriage practices are a tradition that was "unremarkable" in 19th century America. In its statement, the FLDS Church insists that all marriages are consensual. The clarification is believed to have been made with the approval of FLDS leaders, although Jessop did not say if Warren Jeffs had approved of it.

Jeffs was convicted in Utah of rape as an accomplice, accused of performing a marriage between then-14-year-old Elissa Wall and her 19-year-old cousin, Allen Steed. Wall testified in court that she repeatedly begged not to be married, but was pressured into it.

Jeffs is serving a pair of 5-to-life sentences for the crime. In Arizona, he is facing charges accusing him of performing more child-bride marriages. Other FLDS members have been convicted for taking underage brides.

During a child custody hearing in Texas, child welfare authorities entered photographs into evidence that showed Jeffs kissing a 12-year-old girl, whom they allege was married to him. Jessop said he did not have any knowledge of the history of the photos to comment about.

"What happens in specific issues does not apply to everyone in the community," he said.

So-called "child-bride marriages" have placed the FLDS Church under intense scrutiny in several states. The Utah and Arizona attorneys general have leveled investigations into the polygamous sect.

"They could have avoided a lot of heartache if they had agreed to do this years ago," said Paul Murphy, a spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office.

Murphy said there is some skepticism because of the differences in the age of consent for legal marriages, and the age of consent for sexual relationships in a nonlegal marriage, such as a bigamous one.

"We had that discussion with FLDS leaders six years ago where they said they thought 16- and 17-year-olds were a gray area. They're not a gray area as far as the state of Utah is concerned," Murphy said.

Pressed on what the age of marriage will be, Jessop said the church will not allow a marriage that it sanctions without legal consent of those involved in it.

"That includes spiritual marriages," he said.

Jessop accused Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff of making the FLDS criminals because he testified before the Texas Legislature to get them to raise the marriage age.

Numerous criminal investigations are under way, with law enforcement in Utah, Arizona, Nevada and Texas scrutinizing the FLDS Church. Evidence gathered in the raid on the YFZ Ranch could help those investigations.

Jessop was unsure about whether criminal charges would be leveled.

"Maybe they can, maybe they can't," he said. "But it's got to be to a single individual and not to an entire community."


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