San Angelo, Texas - Child by child, Texas authorities are acknowledging that many of the children seized during a raid on a polygamist sect's ranch can safely live with their parents or guardians.
Since the April 3 raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, 235 children's custody cases have been dropped, meaning fewer than half of the 440 children seized remain bound by a court order to stay in Texas, attend parenting classes or be available for unannounced visits by Child Protective Services.
CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said more cases are likely to be dropped but he was unsure how many.
They're being dropped "as fast as we can because it's a burden on everyone," he said.
He said the dismissals do not mean that abuse never occurred, only that many of the children can safely live with a parent or other relative - something that sect members and lawyers argued early on in the chaotic custody case.
"It most certainly goes back to the idea that the proper way to have conducted this process was to get evidence as to what children, if any, were at risk," said Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which represented dozens of mothers in the case. "They went through this ordeal, and in the end, CPS found they were a good parent."
The children of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints were the subject of one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history, taken into state custody from their ranch in a tiny west Texas town because child welfare authorities said girls were being forced into underage marriages and boys were being raised to be perpetrators.
Authorities went to the ranch after several calls to a domestic abuse hotline, in which the caller claimed to be an underage wife and mother who was being beaten and raped by her much-older husband. Texas state police are now investigating whether the calls were a hoax.
Once authorities had the children at a San Angelo shelter, they said the sect members refused to cooperate with the investigation, refusing to give last names or identify parents or siblings. CPS officials said they had no choice but to treat all the children as potentially members of the same family.
They were scattered to foster care facilities across the state in April and remained there for about two months until the Texas Supreme Court ruled that authorities were wrong to take all the children. Half the children sent to foster care were younger than 6.
When state District Judge Barbara Walther ordered them returned to their parents in June, she also ordered them to stay in Texas, take parenting classes, allow psychological assessments and be available to investigators from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.
Only one child - a girl allegedly married to jailed sect leader Warren Jeffs when she was 12 - has been returned to foster care.
Five sect members, including Jeffs, have been indicted in Schleicher County for sexual assault of a child; several have also been charged with bigamy. A sixth FLDS member is charged with failing to report child abuse, a misdemeanor. Jeffs, convicted as an accomplice to rape in Utah, remains jailed in Arizona where he awaits trial on charges stemming from the alleged underage marriage of sect girls.
Crimmins said the agency never intended to take the FLDS children from their parents permanently.
"We never brought the kids into care to keep them in care. We brought them into care to do an efficient and effective investigation," he said.
Jessica Dixon, a law professor who oversees the child advocacy clinic at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said CPS cases do sometimes result in children quickly being dropped from court supervision, even after initial foster placement. But it doesn't happen often.
To remove a child, "legally, you've got to be able to show risk," she said.
CPS now usually looks for a way children can remain with their parents safely, Dixon said, though she noted that cases of alleged sexual abuse will usually trigger swifter action.
"In most child welfare courts, they're going to be safe rather than sorry, and in some cases, that will result in removals that shouldn't have happened," she said.
Since the April raid and rancorous custody case, the FLDS, which believe polygamy brings glorification in heaven, has said it will not sanction marriages of underage girls. The sect is a breakaway of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.