SAN ANTONIO Texas overstepped its authority when it removed some 460 children from a polygamist ranch last month, the state's Supreme Court said on Thursday.
"On the record before us, removal of the children was not warranted," the court said in a decision that upholds a lower court ruling.
"The state's Family Code gives the district court broad authority to protect children short of separating them from their parents and placing them in foster care," it said.
The ruling should pave the way for the children to be reunited with their parents. One of the legal options left for child welfare authorities is having court-imposed restrictions on reunifications where there is cause for concern.
These restrictions could include orders not to take the children beyond a certain area while investigations continue.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said in a statement that while it was disappointed, "we understand and respect the court's decision and will take immediate steps to comply."
"We will continue to prepare for the prompt and orderly reunification of these children with their families. We also will work with the district court to ensure the safety of the children," it said.
The saga has captivated America with lurid allegations of adolescent brides, teenage pregnancies and a secretive sect following its faith in a massive white temple in a remote area of west Texas.
The children were removed in early April after Family and Protective Services received a telephone call reporting that a 16-year-old girl named Sarah was being physically and sexually abused at the compound. "Sarah" was never identified.
The compound is run by followers of jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs. They belong to a renegade Mormon sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS).
The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renounced polygamy over a century ago and is at pains to distance itself from splinter groups such as the FLDS that continue to practice plural marriage.
(Additional reporting and Writing by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Xavier Briand)