(AP) Texas child welfare officials are ignoring the law and using diversions to justify the removal of more than 400 children from a polygamist sect's ranch, the children's mothers said in a state Supreme Court filing Thursday.
The court had given attorneys for the mothers an unusually tight deadline - less than a day - to respond to a brief filed Tuesday by the state, giving the women hope that a ruling on the fate of the children could come quickly.
"They recognize it's an important pressing issue," said Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for the legal aid attorneys representing dozens of mothers in the case.
Under Texas 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.
An appeals court ruled last week that the massive seizure of children from the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado last month fell short of those standards. It ordered Texas District Judge Barbara Walther to reverse her custody ruling and allow more than 100 children to return to their parents.
Texas Child Protective Services lawyers have argued that parents could remove their children from state jurisdiction if they regain custody, that DNA tests needed to confirm parentage are still pending and that the lower-court judge had discretion in the case.
Attorneys for the 38 mothers who filed the complaint the appeals court ruled on said in their filing that the state's arguments stray from the point.
"Rather than meaningfully address the three statutory criteria, the department offers diversionary reasons as to why it would be impractical, or 'wrong,' to return the children to their parents," the attorneys said.
The mothers' attorneys said Thursday the children could be returned with restrictions aimed at preventing families from leaving Texas. They added, "Risk of flight from the jurisdiction is not included as a reason to authorize continued custody."
CPS says it took the children into custody because the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which runs the ranch, was forcing girls into underage marriage and sex. The agency said the sect's beliefs put all the children, including infants and boys, in danger. Parents and church officials deny any abuse.
The case before the court technically only applies to 124 children of the 38 mothers, but the ruling would significantly affect nearly all the FLDS children since they were removed under identical circumstances.
Roughly 430 are now in foster care after two births, numerous reclassifications of adult women initially held as minors and a handful of agreements allowing parents to keep custody while the Supreme Court considers the case.
Separately on Thursday, the ACLU of Texas filed a brief supporting the parents' claim and raising concerns that parents were not given an opportunity to be considered individually in the chaotic two-day custody hearing that resulted in the children going to foster care.
The FLDS, which teaches polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.