Edmonton -- Cults where men have more than one wife subject their children to lives of abuse, a conference heard Friday.
"You can all but kill a child for disobeying," Utah journalist and researcher Andrea Moore Emmett said at the American Family Foundation Conference on cults in Edmonton. The U.S. group educates and counsels people affected by cults around the world.
Moore Emmett said Canadian and American authorities do nothing to stop polygamist colonies from forcing children to work at slave labour, denying them schooling and abusing them physically, sexually and emotionally.
Canada's most notorious polygamist cult is the Bountiful, B.C., settlement of the Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Former Bountiful resident Debbie Palmer escaped the group in 1988 after she was forced to become the sixth wife of a man in his 50s when she was 15.
She told the conference the group's elders frequently marry off teenage daughters to older men who are sometimes their uncles. The leaders justify their matchmaking and abuse by claiming the colony is protected by God, and the decisions are God's will, she said.
"We didn't know any different."
The inbreeding can lead to medical defects, she said.
Women and children are frequently isolated and traded between men in the colony like property, she said.
"One day you've got cousins and nieces and nephews you're best friends with, and the next day they're your enemies who are chasing you with rocks."
Girls are pulled out of home schooling at young ages to learn domestic chores in preparation for marriage, she said.
The B.C. government and Bountiful RCMP are aware the colony's practices breach the Criminal Code, said Calgary lawyer Vaughn Marshall, but they're loathe to act. Police have no heart to press charges because colony members contribute to the economy of the community and are good citizens, he said.
Marshall, who specializes in representing those who have been abused by large organizations, said the suffering could be curtailed by legal action against the government for failing to ensure the children of Bountiful are properly educated.
"The Province of British Columbia is a sitting duck," he said. "Only time will tell."
Marshall predicts Canadian courts will look favourably on parents who have escaped a colony and wage custody battles to free their children.
But the constitutional protection of freedom of religion is an obstacle to cases like these, he said.
Bountiful's bishop, Winston Blackmore, has 26 wives and 80 children. One of Blackmore's wives, Jane Blackmore, escaped the colony 18 months ago, and is considering legal action to get five more of her children out of their restrictive life.
There is no joy in the lives of women and children in many fundamentalist polygamist cults, said Moore Emmett.
She has been covering the Salt Lake City trial of John Daniel Kingston and one of his wives, Heidi, who are accused of abusing their children.
Moore Emmett said the Latter Day Church of Christ group tries to break their children's will when they're young so they remain subservient throughout their lives.
"I refer to them as a herd, where there's no individual identities," she said.
The group is so poor that women pick food from dumpsters to feed their children and leave young kids in charge of their siblings while they work nights. The men are rarely around, she said.
Many groups use biblical references such as Adam and Eve and Mary's immaculate conception as justification for incestuous behaviour, she said. Women have few rights and are used as a "vessel to be worn out in childbirth" with no access to medical care.
Moore Emmett said some Utah police are polygamists themselves, and won't prosecute offenders.