A Texas judge refused on Friday to sign an agreement that would have paved the way for the first large batch of children taken from a polygamist sect's ranch to return to their parents, dashing hopes raised by a Supreme Court ruling in the case.
Texas District Judge Barbara Walther wanted to add restrictions to the parents' movement and broaden the authority of Child Protective Services to monitor the more than 400 children in foster care before signing an agreement by CPS and the parents that would have reunited the families.
When several parents' attorneys objected and argued that Walther didn't have the authority to expand the agreement, she said she would only sign the initial document after all 38 parents whose case was considered by the Supreme Court signed off — a provision attorneys said would ensure the children stayed in custody at least through the weekend.
The hearing's end was a stunning development after it appeared the parents and CPS had reached an agreement that would allow children to return beginning Monday. The tentative plan technically applied only to the mothers named in an appellate court ruling that found CPS was unjustified in sweeping up the children from the Yearning For Zion Ranch two months ago, but everyone agreed the order would be extended to all but a few specific children.
"There was an opportunity today for relief in this, and it was not granted," said Willie Jessop, an elder for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which runs the ranch.
Attorneys for several of the minors and mothers in custody said Walther's refusal to sign the order would likely result in more appellate court filings.
While Walther said she would issue the order if all the parents signed, attorney Andrea Sloan said that would take days because parents have spread across the state to be close to their children in foster care.
"It's not as simple as going across the street and setting up a booth," said Sloan, who represents several young FLDS women and minors who contend they should be reclassified as adults.
Laura Shockley, an attorney for several children and mothers not part of the original appellate court case, predicted more filings in the Third District Court of Appeals in Austin on Monday. That court ordered Walther to allow the children to return to their parents in a reasonable time, a decision affirmed by the Texas Supreme Court on Thursday.
The agreement between CPS and parents said they would not be allowed to leave Texas until Aug. 31 but could move back to the ranch. It also called for parenting classes and visits by CPS to interview children and parents in the child abuse investigation.
Walther wanted to remove the August deadline and provide for psychological evaluations of the children.
All the children living at the ranch were placed in state custody in early April after CPS said the sect was forcing underage girls into marriage and sex and endangering all the children, including infants and boys.
An appellate court ruled last week that CPS failed to show an immediate danger to justify taking the children from their parents, saying the state failed to show any more than five of the teenage girls were being sexually abused and offered no evidence of sexual or physical abuse of the other children.
The Supreme Court agreed in a ruling Thursday.
Under state law, children can be taken from their parents if there's a danger to their physical safety, an urgent need for protection and if officials made a reasonable effort to keep the children in their homes — standards that were not met in the FLDS case, the appellate courts said.
The Supreme Court justices, however, said Walther could put restrictions on the children and parents to address concerns that they may flee once reunited and that CPS had authority to investigate and intervene in the family's lives to prevent abuse.
Texas authorities, meanwhile, collected DNA swabs Thursday from sect leader Warren Jeffs in an ongoing criminal investigation separate from the custody dispute.
A search warrant for the DNA alleges that Jeffs had "spiritual" marriages with four girls, ages 12 to 15.
Jeffs, who is revered as a prophet, is serving a prison sentence for a Utah conviction of being accomplice to rape in the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to a 19-year-old sect member. He awaits trial in Arizona on similar charges.
FLDS members, who believe polygamy brings glorification in heaven, say there was no abuse at the ranch. The sect is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.