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Texas judge sends polygamist religious group children home

More than 430 children taken by authorities from a ranch run by a polygamist religious group in Texas are being returned to their parents after nearly two months in foster care. The process is expected to take several days.

The children were removed on 3 April after state officials received a phone call from a girl at the ranch claiming she had been sexually abused. More broadly, officials had accused members of the religious group of forcing under-age girls into marriage.

Texas District Judge Barbara L. Walther issued an order on 2 June for the children to be returned to their parents after the state’s Supreme Court ruled at the end of May that the seizure was not justified. The Supreme Court said child protection workers did not have enough evidence to remove every single child from the ranch.

The Yearning For Zion ranch is run by the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) movement, which allows its members to practice polygamy.

The latest court order stipulates that the children’s parents must stay in Texas, attend parenting classes, and allow their children to be examined as part of any abuse investigation.

The order does not ask parents to renounce polygamy or leave the Yearning For Zion ranch.

On 2 June, The Associated Press reported that Willie Jessop, a church elder, had announced that future marriages would only involve group members who were of legal age.

"The church will counsel families that they neither request nor consent to any underage marriages," the news agency quoted Jessop as saying.

FLDS leaders have consistently denied that any children have been abused, and members have said they are being persecuted for their religion, which holds that polygamy brings glorification in heaven.

The FLDS left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often called the Mormon church) after it renounced polygamy in 1890. The FLDS was once headed by Warren Jeffs, who in September 2007 was found guilty on two counts of being an accomplice to rape.

In her order, Judge Walther did not end the criminal investigation linked to the ranch. Authorities last week collected DNA from Jeffs as part of an investigation into underage sex with girls aged 12 to 15.