Child welfare laws in most states express a significant preference for keeping children in their homes or in the custody of biological family members, if at all possible.
There are times, however, when returning children to a questionable family situation clearly is not in their best interests. It remains to be seen whether Texas officials have done the right thing by ordering about 400 children back to a ranch operated by a polygamist religious sect. In the meantime, the welfare of these children certainly demands close monitoring by the child welfare system.
The children were placed in foster care about two months ago amid allegations of underage girls being forced into marriages and sexual relations with older men in the sect. DNA samples have been taken from one of the leaders of the sect as part of an investigation into underage sex with girls ages 12 to 15 at the ranch. The sect leader has been convicted as an accomplice to rape in Utah and is in an Arizona jail awaiting trial on similar charges.
No group should be persecuted for practicing its religious beliefs - unless those beliefs involve illegal activity such as sexual abuse of underage children. The children were removed from the Texas ranch and placed in foster care because there was evidence that illegal activity was occurring there.
The Texas Supreme Court's decision last week to return children to the ranch seems to underestimate the potential threat. The court ruled that the state had overreached by taking all the children from the ranch when prosecutors had failed to show that more than five teenage girls had been sexually abused.
How many cases of abuse does it take? If the case involved eight girls, would the ranch be deemed an unsafe place for younger children? Maybe 10 cases of potential abuse? And how many more cases might occur while this investigation is ongoing?
This investigation obviously has been unsettling and difficult for the young children involved. The law is not wrong for wanting to return those children to their biological mothers, but the state also needs to weigh family interests against the safety of the children.
Perhaps returning the children to the Texas ranch won't hamper the investigation of this group's activities or endanger any of the children involved. If, however, any underage children are harmed as a result of the court's decision to place them back in this environment, the outcry from the people of Texas should be long and loud.