Legislator: Abuse still rampant in Arizona's polygamist communities

ASU Web Devil, Arizona/April 15, 2009

On the border of Arizona and Utah, in a remote part of the state where jurisdictional lines are blurred, lies the polygamous town of Colorado City, home of Warren Jeffs' Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Among the peculiarities of the town are birth defects unheard of anywhere else in the world, a female life expectancy of 32 years, black trucks that follow outsiders around everywhere and a baby cemetery, said Rep. David Lujan, D-15, in a lecture on Monday night at ASU's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.

"Colorado City is a town with a population of less than 10,000, yet they have a baby cemetery that extends over two acres," Lujan said. "Just an inordinate number of baby graves for a town that size. But that's not even the most stunning thing. You see a lot of graves that are either dug up or unmarked, and so many where the headstone indicated they died years ago, in 1997 or something, yet there is fresh dirt on the grave."

Lujan is the Arizona House of Representatives Minority Leader, and a possible contender for Attorney General in 2010. Additionally, he serves as the staff attorney for Defenders of Children, the first nonprofit organization to open an office in Colorado City.

"Driving into Colorado City, it's just a beautiful setting," similar to Sedona, Lujan said. "But then you see immediately upon entering that it is unlike any other town you've ever been to. There are no people out walking around, and when you do see the children, they run into the house, because they are taught their entire lives that the ‘outside' world is evil and you stay away from it."

A real-life account Flora Jessop, another speaker at the event, was one of those children nearly two decades ago.

Although she isn't sure exactly what made her question everything while her brothers and sisters did not, Jessop traces her contempt back to the town gas station when she was 8 years old.

A motorcyclist's bike had broken down outside town, and he was looking for help, she said.

"I watched my dad put a two-barrel shotgun in his face and tell the man he better get out of town if he wanted to make it out at all," Jessop said. "I remember that man had the kindest eyes I had ever seen, and when he looked at me, he was the first man ever to look at me that way. And all I could think was, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' And I couldn't figure out what that man had done to warrant treatment like that."

Sexual abuse by her father began around the same age, she said. When Jessop took him to court at age 13, the judge placed her in the care of her uncle. Her uncle Fred, however, owed her father an enormous favor, Jessop said. Married to five wives, he was sterile, so Jessop's father had given many of his own children to Fred's "kingdom," she said.

"So I spent three years in solitary confinement having ‘Satan' beat out of me," Jessop said, adding that her siblings were told she was dead. "I didn't care if I lived or died - I really didn't care. It came to the point where everything had been beaten out of me except anger and hate."

Jessop, at 18, attempted her first escape and made it to the creek outside town before her father found her, Jessop said.

"He said, ‘You have a choice - you can marry Philip [the man she was arranged to wed] or we'll commit you to the state mental institution for the rest of your life.' So that Saturday, they drove us to Las Vegas and we got married."

Three weeks later, Jessop escaped for good.

"I was one of the first women to make it out of Colorado City and live," she said.

After five years living on the street and "staying one step ahead of the guys they sent after me," Jessop became pregnant with a daughter and decided she couldn't run anymore, she said.

"So I called my dad and said, ‘Here's my address - come and get me.

But remember, I know all of your rules and you know half of mine.' And I sat and waited, but they never came. That's when I realized that the FLDS men are just like schoolyard bullies - if you don't show fear, they get bored."

Since then, Jessop has devoted her life to gaining the trust of and advocating for women and children seeking to leave polygamist communities. She and her organization have aided 94 women and children in escaping and helped more than a thousand others, she said.

Lack of formal education, the ability to learn, question and think individually is further hindered by the lack of education in Colorado City, Lujan said.

No one from the FLDS community has tested above a third- or fourth-grade level, Jessop said.

Until about five years ago, the FLDS ran the public school in Colorado City, but when the state discovered the FLDS had used education funding to purchase a private plane and pay other church expenses, it took over the public schools.

In response, then-leader Jeffs put all the community's children in a charter school. Today, they do not go to school at all, Lujan said.

"The story is they're all being homeschooled, but evidence suggests that they're being put to work," Lujan said, noting that Arizona requires only a signed affidavit from homeschooling parents.

Jessop provided some books as examples of what the community's children learn in homeschooling. Lujan read aloud from one titled, "Sisters Are Eternal Friends," which he said refers to sister-wives (other wives of a woman's husband).

"These sisters do not have bad tempers. They are always sweet to one another," one page said. Another stated, "Father is the master of the house."

Jessop elaborated on the importance of being "sweet" for girls and women in the FLDS church.

"Keep sweet no matter what - it's a matter of life and death" is a motto in the FLDS, she said. "And they mean it. You cannot have emotions."

As an example of the difficulty in "keeping sweet," Jessop told everyone to imagine lying in bed in one room while their spouse had sex with someone else in the next room.

"Do you think you'd be able to get up the next morning and give them both a big ol' hug and kiss?" Jessop said.

The competition to be perfect and the favorite causes constant arguing between sister-wives, Jessop said.

"I didn't come out of polygamy hating men - I came out of polygamy hating women," she said. "It took me 16 years after getting out of Colorado City before I could trust a female. That's why you don't see a more united front."

Girls raised in the FLDS cannot be friends with their birth sisters, have girl friends or share confidences, she explained. They are taught from birth that their only friends are their sister-wives, and after marriage, even private contact with one's own mother is forbidden, she said.

Parents, taught that God finds crying babies offensive, silence their children from infancy by either slapping the baby's face repetitively or holding children's face under running water until they stop crying, she said.

Pushing for change Lujan hopes to change several main FLDS policies through the Legislature.

Lujan introduced a bill last year that would have barred judges from giving joint or full custody to a parent who practices child bigamy, which is the marriage of underage children into polygamy.

"Whenever women get out, the first thing they do is file for custody of their children," Lujan said. "And some of these judges up there just hand custody right back over to the abusers. That is the most discouraging message you can send to these polygamist wives."

Joint custody is not an acceptable option either, he said, because of the confusion it creates for children shuffling back and forth between two "dramatically different lifestyles."

The bill soared through the House with bipartisan support but was blocked by former Rep. Eddie Farnsworth on the House Judiciary Committee, who Lujan said had a "difference in philosophy."

Farnsworth is no longer in the legislature, but now the budget crisis must be resolved before any representatives or state senators can introduce new bills.

Lujan said he would also like to see more funding for women's shelters specifically for women fleeing polygamy.

"Traditional domestic violence shelters are not set up for polygamist mothers," he said. "There needs to be room for a woman and her 13 children. They need their own shelters far away from Colorado City.

If they go to a shelter near there, they're still getting abused at the local Wal-Mart or the post office."

Another policy change Lujan hopes to implement would change the state law on incest. Currently, incest charges are dropped and the law does not apply if the victim is under age 18, Lujan said.

"I think the reasoning for this is for situations with a brother and sister who don't know what they're doing," he explained.

The revised statute would include an exception for those incidents of innocent children and would make sure that incest laws do apply to adults committing incest against victims under age 18, he said.

Lujan, who has formed an exploratory committee to run for Arizona Attorney General in 2010, praised current Attorney General Terry Goddard's handling of polygamy-related cases.

Goddard does not prosecute anyone solely for polygamy, but he has not hesitated to pursue FLDS members committing welfare fraud, child-labor law violations, and abuse.

"So often people think that Warren Jeffs is behind bars and all is well in the world," Lujan said. "But the abuse continues."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.