The State Supreme Court has upheld the earlier ruling by the Third Court of Appeals that the state of Texas overstepped its bounds in the case of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the removal of children from its compound.
The Third Court ruled the state didn't have enough evidence to order into foster care every child who lived at the Yearning for Zion Ranch, instead of just the teenage girls who child welfare officials said were at risk of being sexually abused by marriages to older men.
"On the record before us, removal of the children was not warranted," said the court in an unsigned opinion.
It was not clear exactly when the children will be returned and restrictions can be placed on their living arrangements.
CPS attorneys will have to decide whether to go back to court to try to regain custody of some of the children, particularly the underage girls, whose safety has been at the heart of this case.
"It is a victory as to returning the children to the families, but it does not mean the case is over," said Laura Shockley, an attorney who represents some of the children. "It doesn't mean that re-removal of some of the children couldn't occur again."
Six justices agreed entirely with the decision. Three justices, Harriet O'Neill, Phil Johnson and Don Willett, said they would keep pubescent girls in state custody but return younger girls and boys.
The court ordered District Judge Barbara Walther to withdraw her order giving the state custody of all the children, who are scattered around the state in group homes and shelters. But it noted that she can place conditions on their return, including requiring them to stay in West Texas and removing alleged abusers from their home.
University of Texas Law Professor Jack Sampson said the ruling gives Walther broad discretion to provide greater protections to teenage girls, and that she can make sure CPS has access to children who are returned to the ranch.
"She has the power to ensure that the kids aren't going back unmonitored," he said.
Returning the children will likely make it much more difficult for child welfare authorities to continue their investigation into whether children were abused on the remote compound owned by members of a breakaway Mormon group known for its polygamist practices. Agency officials said they were unable to get clear information from the children when they were still with their mothers in temporary shelters in San Angelo.
CPS is awaiting the results of DNA tests which Walther ordered to match children with their parents. A criminal probe also is continuing as investigators sift through more than 900 boxes of material removed from the ranch during the weeklong raid that began April 3.
"They're going to have to return the kids, but this is going to be a fiasco," said Shockley, an attorney whose FLDS clients include a 26-year-old mother whom CPS insisted was an underage girl until a week ago.
The Dallas attorney said it's not a clean win for FLDS parents. "Yes, they have to return the children, but they -- CPS -- can put provisions in an order that requires all sorts of monitoring and home studies and that sort of thing."