Child-custody bill tied to polygamists is dead

Cronkite News Service/March 26, 2007
By David Biscobing

A bill aimed at helping women leave polygamist husbands apparently will go no further this legislative session.

HB 2325 would have denied husbands child custody if a court found "sufficient evidence" that they engaged in polygamy or child bigamy, an offense that includes married adults taking a child spouse and adults forcing children to enter plural marriages.

Rep. David Lujan, D-Phoenix, said Monday that the bill, which won unanimous approval from the House Human Services Committee, won't take the next step and be heard by the Judiciary Committee.

He said a second bill to provide funds for shelters helping women who leave polygamous marriages also won't advance.

"It's unfortunate that these aren't moving forward, but I'm going to continue pushing these because I feel they are important," said Lujan, who also is the staff attorney for the Arizona chapter of Justice for Children, a national child advocacy group.

Lujan introduced the bills after a visit to Colorado City last year with a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect that practices polygamy.

"It's child abuse flat-out," Lujan said. "There is tremendous fear and pressure put on them, and they need support."

At present, Lujan said, husbands can be granted joint or sole custody even when polygamy is alleged because those situations are treated like traditional child-custody cases.

Lujan's second bill, HB 2467, would have appropriated $550,000 to create shelters in Phoenix and Flagstaff for women and children leaving polygamists. He said shelters in St. George, Utah, about 30 miles from Colorado City, are too close.

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, declined to hear HB 2325, Lujan said.

Farnsworth didn't immediately return two phone calls seeking comment.

Lujan said some lawmakers raised concerns that the bill unnecessarily included individuals who organize plural marriages involving children.

The pair of bills would have been a shift in the right direction, said Flora Jessop, who fled a polygamist community in her teens and is now executive director of the Child Protection Project.

"These would have been very good steps forward because there are currently no steps in place," she said. "There is nothing out there for these women and children." Jessop, who spoke at the hearing on Lujan's bill, said children in polygamist sects are considered the property of the priesthood, not the mother, which is something that causes women to fear leaving. She said people in the polygamist communities stalk, harass and intimidate those who try to leave.

"Mothers don't want to leave their children behind in an environment like that," she said. "What mother would?"

Lujan said he will reintroduce the bills next year but will narrow the language to make them more palatable. He said Arizona needs to give women and children the confidence and security to exit polygamist communities.

"When the wife builds the courage to leave and a court gives custody to the polygamist, it sends shockwaves back into the community that tell women they can't win," Lujan said.

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