More than 460 children seized by state authorities in April in an investigation of possible sex abuse at an isolated West Texas polygamist community began going home on Monday.
The case, one of the largest custody disputes in U.S. history, tied the Texas child welfare system in knots and became the focus of a national debate over the limits of police power.
State officials announced the release, under a court order signed by a district judge here in Tom Green County, and said the story is far from over.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, Marleigh Meisner, said the investigation into possible sex abuse will continue. The judge in the case also imposed a lengthy list of caveats pending the conclusion of the investigation, including surprise home visits by case workers, possible psychiatric evaluations of the children and a ban on travel outside Texas.
"We hope they can be safe," Meisner said in a statement outside the courthouse. "We continue to have concerns."
But for the parents, the children and their caregivers in the foster care system, it was a day for tears - of joy at the reunification, or of bittersweet sadness at the parting.
At the High Sky Children's Ranch in Midland, where 15 girls from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, ages 11 to 17, had been staying, the children all donned identical navy blue dresses they had sewn themselves.
"This is their way of celebrating," said Jackie Carter, executive director of the shelter. "They're all hugging and happy, but I'm sad because I'm going to miss them - they've been very delightful to know."
Confusion has been a constant in the case, ever since state officials took action on April 3 - prompted, they said, by a call to an abuse hot line from a girl who said that she was 16 and that her 49-year-old husband was abusing her. The girl was never found or identified.
The sect's leader, Warren Jeffs, is serving a prison sentence of 10 years to life for his role in forcing a 14-year-old girl in Utah to marry an older man.
Two court rulings in May - including one from the state's highest judicial panel, the Supreme Court - criticized the Department of Family and Protective Services, concluding that the seizure order had been too broad, and that a threat to the safety of all the children in the group's compound, called the Yearning for Zion ranch, in Eldorado, could not be proved.
The release order issued on Monday was worked out over the weekend and signed by Judge Barbara Walther of the District Court. It seemed to please no one entirely.
Her final order required that every parent from the sect take child-rearing classes and said any interference with the state's investigation would violate the court order.
Some lawyers for the families said the open-ended nature of the order - it has no expiration date - might mean that at some point another court process will be needed for a final resolution. Others criticized the judge's inclusion of psychiatric examinations.
But one member of the sect, Willie Jessop, said that the settlement is flawed, but that half a loaf was good enough. "We wish it was a better order, but hey, it gets the children and the mothers back, so we'll take it," Jessop said.
In a news conference at the Zion ranch late Monday, Jessop said his sect will now formally forbid any girl to marry if she is under the legal consent age in the state where she lives.
The FLDS sect broke off from the mainstream Mormon church decades ago over polygamy, which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavowed in 1890.
Sect's kids, parents reunited / Surprise visits, ban on travel to be in place during investigation
Polygamist sect children start returning home - Times Online
The Associated Press: Families separated by raid on sect are reunited
The Associated Press: Judge orders return of polygamist group's children
Children from US polygamous sect return home from custody
Texas polygamist sect bans marriages with underage girls Chron.com - Houston Chronicle
MinnPost - Texas expected to focus child-abuse inquiry
Only one sect child still at local shelter : Corpus Christi Local Caller-Times
Reunited, but sect families hesitant to return to ranch Chron.com - Houston Chronicle
Opposing View -
Opposing view: We had good reason to act - Yahoo! News