Saying their future ''rests in your arms, your hands and your love,'' 3rd District Juvenile Court Judge Andrew Valdez ordered the state Wednesday to begin the process of reuniting Heidi Mattingly Foster and her children.
"I do believe you've made some changes," Valdez told Mattingly Foster, who has 11 children with polygamist John Daniel Kingston. ''I'm trying to help you become a better mom, that's all.''
After three days of testimony, Valdez decided Mattingly Foster has made good progress in learning how to protect herself, her children and provide a safe, healthy home for them - though he made clear the work must continue.
He ordered therapists for Mattingly Foster and the children to immediately work out details for starting supervised visits, family therapy and a transition plan that, if she does everything asked, will allow nine children to come home.
In July, one of two teens removed from her home in February 2004, was made the permanent ward of an uncle and aunt. Eight more children were removed from the home in October; an infant remained with Mattingly Foster. Her supervised visits with the children were stopped in early February.
The judge also lifted a no-contact order that since Oct. 22 kept Mattingly Foster away from her church, family and friends, dozens of whom stayed at the courthouse into the evening, praying, as they awaited word of the judge's decision.
As Mattingly Foster, 33, emerged from the courthouse, friends and family, many sobbing, scooped her up in a big group hug.
A weeping Mattingly Foster said she felt "wonderful, happy. I hope [the kids] are watching."
Valdez said that in a two-hour meeting with the children Tuesday, each expressed the desire to go home to their mother and that while one child voiced fear of Kingston, none felt that way about their mom. And what does Mattingly Foster plan to do when she sees them? ''I'm going to give them some hugs,'' she said.
''I'm really thankful for all of the people who have supported me,'' said Mattingly Foster.
Valdez kept in place an order barring Kingston from contact with Mattingly Foster and his children - though he allowed the couple to exchange a long embrace and kiss in the courtroom, and then hug their oldest daughter.
The judge, who also asked that Kingston begin domestic violence counseling, shook hands with Kingston as the hearing ended.
"I will do whatever I need to do to be with my family, whatever that might be," said Kingston. His attorney, Daniel Irvin, said his client has actually already begun that therapy.
"I miss those children very much," Kingston said. "They are very wonderful, beautiful children. I would like them to get back with their mother first and we will work through whatever we need to do to get them back."
Valdez will review the case again on June 28. He warned Mattingly Foster that her failure to continue complying with his orders could result in immediate action to terminate her parental rights.
Valdez spent a half hour reviewing the state's decadelong involvement with the family and his own efforts to help them over the past year. The case began as a dispute between the couple and their two oldest daughters over ear piercing and led to subsequent findings of ongoing neglect and abuse by both parents.
The judge chided Mattingly Foster and Kingston for trying to blame him, state attorneys and caseworkers for the yearlong welfare case.
"It's not what order you belong to, it's how you treat these kids," he said. Valdez said he tried to make clear to Mattingly Foster getting back her children depends on "what you do on your own as a mom."
Assistant Attorney General Carolyn Nichols and Guardian Ad Litem Kristin Brewer argued that Mattingly Foster's transformation was merely superficial and that she had not acknowledged maltreatment by Kingston or her past abuse and neglect of her children. After 10 years of intervention, "time is up," as Brewer put it in asking the judge to decide against reunifying the family.
Nichols described Mattingly Foster as a victim of "Stockholm Syndrome."
"From what she has shown here, she still views [the situation] as a joke," Nichols said. "There was and has been no long-term change and if there is no change, the children can't be safely returned home." But Valdez seemed to take to heart comments by her therapists and several of her children, who said they see positive changes in her and past interventions with the family never reached the extent it has now.
Months ago, Valdez said he didn't expect to turn Mattingly Foster into Marie Osmond overnight. But on Wednesday he said there was enough evidence to believe she has begun a personal transformation that will allow her to provide a safe, good home for the kids.
"When we tell a mom if you do certain things we'll return the kids, we need to give it a chance," he said. "I hope it works out."
Bonnie Peters, executive director of the Family Support Center in Murray, said over five months of working with Mattingly Foster, she has seen her "get real" and begin "openly sharing and showing emotion."
"She's not totally there yet," Peters said.
Gary Bell, Mattingly Foster's attorney, said the state was hung up on her saying "magic words" to prove she's accepted responsibility for her past behavior. She refuses to do that, he said, because a request for records about her case indicate there is an ongoing criminal investigation.
"It is clear to this court, it is clear to everyone here, that the only way [she] is going to truly show whether or not she's ingrained this concepts would be to put it to the test," Bell said.
As the hearing ended, Valdez listened as the couple's oldest daughter thanked him for what has been a hard but positive experience.
''Because of the last year I've become a stronger person. I have formed my own identity and I want to see the rest of my family do that,'' said the girl.