Arizona lawmaker targets visitation by polygamists

Deseret Morning News/January 19, 2007
By Ben Winslow

In a traditional divorce, the judge often orders mommy and daddy to share the child, granting custody to one and visitation to the other.

But what if there are "other" mothers?

An Arizona lawmaker has filed a bill in that state seeking to block the courts from granting any visitation to a spouse who practices polygamy.

"In a typical marriage, the courts try to strike a balance," said Rep. David Lujan, D-Phoenix. "I don't believe that works when you're dealing with one parent who's engaged in child bigamy. Child bigamy is essentially child abuse."

Lujan, who is an attorney for a children's justice organization, came up with the legislation to help women leaving the polygamous border communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah. He said his office recently helped a woman with seven kids file for divorce. The courts granted the father visitation rights.

"It's very traumatic for the kids. They're being forced to live in two dramatically different worlds," Lujan said in an interview with the Deseret Morning News. "When they go to their fathers on weekends, the girls put on the long polygamous dresses. The father's preaching the concept of child bigamy. Essentially, he is telling the kids that they're going to have to get married at an early age."

Lujan's bill includes polygamy as a reason for the courts to block child visitation. However, he said Wednesday he plans to amend the legislation to exclude that while focusing on "child bigamy" or child-bride marriages.

The bill is being watched by pro-polygamy activists on the Utah-Arizona border. Marlyne Hammon with the Centennial Park Action Committee said she opposes child-bride marriages, but said lawmakers may only be getting a one-sided opinion of plural marriage.

"They think that anybody in polygamy is abusive and it's a bad situation," she said. "They don't have that input on a larger group of people who live a happy lifestyle."

Lujan said he is not necessarily targeting polygamy, but hoping to help people leave an abusive situation in a polygamous society.

"When the courts are just giving the kids back to the fathers, it makes it that much more difficult to leave the polygamous communities," he said.

The HOPE Organization, a Washington City-based nonprofit group that helps people leaving the closed societies, said the bill could aid women forced to make a tough choice.

"It might let those women who want their children know they have more choices," said HOPE director Elaine Tyler. "Some women are told they can leave, but they can't take their children. I tell these women they're going to have to go through a custody battle."

Lujan is also drafting legislation that would spend $500,000 to provide transitional shelters in Arizona for women leaving Colorado City.

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