More than 400 children taken from a Texas polygamous sect will be returned to their families immediately, a court official said on Monday, two months after they were seized over abuse allegations.
A Texas judge ordered that the state's Child Protective Services (CPS) begin the process Monday of surrendering custody of the children to their legal guardians.
The order requires that the children remain in the state of Texas, that the parents take parenting classes and cooperate with the investigation into charges of systemic sexual abuse among members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, The Dallas Morning News reported.
The judge also said CPS workers may remove the children for interviews if needed from the 1,700-acre (690-hectare) ranch near El Dorado, in central Texas, and put no time limit on the ongoing investigation.
"We wished it was a better order but, hey, get the mothers and children back -- so we'll take it," sect spokesman Willie Jessop said about the court order, issued after three days of negotiations between the judge and hundreds of lawyers from both sides.
CPS spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said it could take until Friday to complete the transfer, but that "every single child will be returned to their parents."
The order followed a Texas Supreme Court ruling Thursday that said the children must be returned to their parents, and that state child welfare officials had overstepped their authority when they took the 468 children.
The children range in age from three months to 17 years, with most between the ages of three and eight, officials said.
The ruling upheld a lower court's finding that Texas child welfare officials failed to prove the children were in immediate danger when they were taken from the sect's Yearning for Zion Ranch.
Child Protective Services spokeswoman Shari Pulliam said the state was pleased by the judge's order because it allowed "a prompt and orderly" return of the children.
"The court's order ensures that the state's investigation of abuse and neglect continues with strong provisions in place to prevent interference and ensure compliance by the parents," she added.
Sect lawyer Jessop urged reporters to "be super-sensitive" as the children reunite with their mothers, adding that after two months of separation, "the toll on the children is showing."
Texas police and welfare officials raided the reclusive sect's sprawling compound near the small town on April 3 and took the girls and boys into state custody amid allegations of systemic sexual and physical abuse.
The agency said it would continue its investigation into allegations of "spiritual" marriages of underage girls to older men.
Officials said girls were being "groomed" to accept sex with their middle-aged "spiritual husbands" as soon as they hit puberty and boys were being indoctrinated to perpetuate the cycle of abuse.
Sect members believe that polygamy is a way to get to heaven.
Despite the shocking allegations there have yet to be charges or arrests in the case. Police say the investigation is still underway.