Texas child welfare authorities sought Wednesday to end court supervision of 14 more children taken in the raid on the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch.
Meanwhile, a new federal appeals court ruling will affect how Texas Child Protective Services removes children from homes when there are allegations of abuse.
The ruling last month by a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will bar welfare officials from automatically removing all children from a home if one child is alleged to be abused. While unrelated, the ruling came amid scrutiny of the state's removal of hundreds of children in April from the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch.
"The decision will require us to make some extremely difficult decisions," Carey Cockerell, commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said in an "urgent legal advisory."
The ruling means child welfare workers will also be required to obtain court orders in most cases before removing allegedly abused children from their homes, officials said.
The advisory memo was sent last week to CPS staff, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News reported Tuesday. It said staffers must follow the new policies to avoid being sued for monetary damages.
Generally, CPS removes a child if there's a threat of immediate danger or sexual abuse and then heads to the court to seek a removal order from a judge.
In the future, the memo states, the state will have to obtain parental consent or a court order first, "unless life or limb is in immediate jeopardy or sexual abuse is about to occur."
The ruling resulted from a lawsuit against the state of Texas filed by a Fort Bend County couple, Gary and Melissa Gates. Their 13 children had been removed from the home during a child abuse investigation in 2000. A judge returned the children to them several days later.
The federal appeals court dismissed the Gates lawsuit on technical grounds, but agreed that the case could have been handled better. It said that state agencies must "seek to involve the state courts, who act as neutral magistrates in these complicated matters, as early in the process as practicable."
"In that way, the government may ensure that everyone's interests are considered, and the least amount of harm will come to the children the government seeks to protect, as well as their parents," said the opinion by Judge Edward Prado.
The memo said that in the future, child abuse investigators must consider the situation of each child in the home before any of them are removed.
The standard practice of removing all children in a household when abuse was suspected on any single child was the basis for removing 440 children from a Utah-based polygamist group in Eldorado. The children were returned to their parents in June, though one girl an alleged child bride of church leader Warren Jeffs was put back in foster care earlier this month.
On Wednesday, lawyers for CPS went to court in San Angelo, Texas, to "non-suit" 14 more FLDS children, CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins confirmed to the Deseret News.
A nonsuit does not end CPS' investigation or supervision over the children, but ends court jurisdiction over their cases. The reasons vary, from no evidence of abuse or neglect being found to parents taking appropriate steps to protect their children from abuse. Some age out of the system by turning 18.
The 14 are the latest in a string of cases CPS has sought to nonsuit nonsuit. So far, Texas authorities have estimated up to 176 children have been nonsuited. On Tuesday, 10 more children were dropped.
Cynthia Martinez of the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Society, which represents more than 45 FLDS mothers, said 17 mothers' children have been nonsuited.
"This means that the investigations have concluded and the mothers are no longer held to the restrictions originally set up by CPS (parenting classes, travel notifications, etc.)," she said in an e-mail to the Deseret News.CPS has also notified the mothers' attorneys which ones will likely be nonsuited in the future, Martinez said. Others will likely remain under some kind of CPS oversight.
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