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Texas sect families reunited

SAN ANGELO, Texas - Parents awaiting the release of children taken into state custody during a raid of a polygamist group's ranch may need to wait a few days because so many parents are showing up at foster homes simultaneously, a sect leader said Tuesday.

Parents took 229 of the roughly 430 children in foster care on Monday after a judge signed an order clearing the children to leave with their parents, bowing to a state Supreme Court ruling that the seizure was not justified.

'Everybody is trying really hard to be patient and considerate,' Willie Jessop said, an elder with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. 'We know more and more are leaving every hour.'

Child welfare officials expected many of the remaining children to go home Tuesday as parents traveled across the sprawling state to foster facilities where the children were scattered.

Jennetta Jessop fought back tears when she was reunited with her 5-year-old son.

'I just love my children so much,' said Jessop, who picked up her son Monday at a Fort Worth shelter and had four other children to collect. 'This is the happiest day of my life.'

Amid the parents' joy, a church elder announced what he called a clarification in sect policy aimed at keeping such a seizure from ever happening again: Future marriages will only involve sect members who are of legal age.

'The church will counsel families that they neither request nor consent to any underage marriages,' Willie Jessop said late Monday, reading from a statement at the ranch in Eldorado. Many sect members have the same last name but may or may not be related.

Willie Jessop said the church has been widely misunderstood and insisted marriages within the church have always been consensual.

He would not say whether marriages of underage minors had taken place in the past but said the sect as a whole should not be punished for the misdeeds of a few.

Judge Barbara Walther's order requires the parents to stay in Texas, to attend parenting classes and to allow the children to be examined as part of any abuse investigation.

But it does not put restrictions on the children's fathers, require the parents to renounce polygamy or force them to leave the Yearning For Zion Ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a breakaway sect of the Mormon church.

Child Protective Services removed all the children from the ranch after an April 3 raid prompted by calls to a domestic abuse hot line that purportedly came from a 16-year-old mother who was being abused by her middle-age husband. The calls are now being investigated as a hoax, but authorities contended all the children were at risk because church teachings pushed underage girls into marriage and sex.

The church has denied any children were abused, and members have said they are being persecuted for their religion, which believes polygamy brings glorification in heaven.