Push to free kids from sect growing

East Valley Tribune/January 20, 2004
By Mary K. Reinhart

Most of the children who ran from the Colorado City polygamist community over the weekend have returned, but four others reportedly left Monday and more were expected to try to flee their isolated hilltop homes in the days ahead.

Conflicting stories and rumors swirled about the teens who fled Saturday to a home in St. George, Utah, including just how many there were. Their whereabouts, as well as how and why they might have gone home, also was in dispute late Monday.

What appeared clear, however, was a growing momentum on the part of antipolygamist activists to free teens from the closed society that they say condones forced marriages and child abuse, and a willingness on the part of authorities in Arizona and Utah to help the children.

"We're hoping that lots of them will come out while they have the opportunity," said Flora Jessop, who last week brought two 16-year-old girls from Colorado City to live in Phoenix. "We hope to get the message to these kids that they are going to be safe."

State Child Protective Services confirmed that Fawn Holm and Fawn Broadbent are in state custody. Jessop said they are living with a foster family whose licensing was expedited by the Arizona Attorney General's Office, allowing a juvenile court judge to make the girls temporary state wards pending a CPS investigation.

"They are absolutely doing amazing for these kids and offering protection and guaranteeing that they won't be sent back," she said of Arizona officials.

Jessop, executive director of the California-based Child Protection Project, said she has been inundated with offers of help - clothes, thousands of dollars in cash and homes for the children - after reports in the Tribune last week and Monday about the runaways.

Another 17-year-old girl left the community over the weekend and is in protective custody in Utah, said Paul Murphy, spokesman for Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. Murphy said anyone wanting to help teens who flee Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah, should contact child welfare officials rather than shelter them in secret.

"If these people are trying to help teenagers, they need to follow the law," Murphy said.

A child crisis center in St. George, Utah, can take children, and a women's shelter, the Dove Center, can give women temporary shelter, he said.

At least eight teens fled Colorado City and spent Saturday night at the home of a man who had once been a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a group estimated at 55,000 that separated from the mainstream Mormon Church more than 100 years ago.

What happens next depends on to whom you talk, as groups trying to help women and children leave this community are themselves split into at least two camps.

Jessop and her supporters said the children were still staying with the man Sunday night, when he received a call from a Utah government official warning that he could be held criminally liable if the kids remained at his home past the 10 p.m. curfew. He sent the children out into the night, Jessop said, and all but two boys returned home.

Jessop said she tried to find a place for them but was told at the Youth Crisis Center in St. George that only children from Utah would be accepted. Arizona children who came would be returned to their parents, she said.

"They all ended up back on the streets with nowhere to go because they were afraid to call the authorities," she said.

Bob Curran, who runs an organization in St. George called Help the Child Brides, said the children were gone by Sunday morning. The man did receive a call from Utah authorities reminding him of the law, but it was after the youths had left. Curran said there may have been 10 teens, ranging from 13 to 16, including a few from a splinter group in nearby Centennial City.

"There's a procedure in effect now," Curran said. "Those of us on the outside who want to help, we cannot harbor them. We cannot do anything for them except refer them to Child Protective Services."

Curran said the Utah Attorney General's Office has loosened the requirements on the Youth Crisis Center in St. George to allow children to come and go as they please, in hopes of encouraging those who believe they have been abused or neglected to feel comfortable coming out and telling their stories.

"They're not going to send those kids back there without an investigation of the abuses," he said.

Members of the splinter sect have been prosecuted for child abuse in Utah and Arizona. But women and children still fear authority and are taught that the outside world is basically evil, Jessop and Curran said.

"Just about all the girls out there were raped at an early age, quite often by their brothers and cousins and uncles and fathers. Nobody wanted to talk about it. Nobody wanted to look at it," Curran said. "They just let them do their thing out there. Meanwhile, the abuses just got worse."

In addition to the crisis center, Arizona and Utah authorities are opening a Mohave County sheriff's substation, independent of the local police department, as part of a justice center that would serve as a safe haven for teens fleeing forced marriages or other abuses.

The recent runaways come as the community is still reeling from prophet Warren Jeffs' action on Jan. 10 excommunicating about 20 men during a public meeting. One observer noted that by stripping them of their many wives, children and property, he affected some 10 percent of the community, including dozens of children who could be assigned to a new father. Jeffs is believed to own land south of Nogales and has reportedly fled to Mexico.

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