Mom's case revisits child-bigamy issue

The Arizona Republic/February 24, 2008

When Sarine Jessop left her husband, he had already taken a second wife and was pursuing teenage girls to bring into the marriage, too, she said.

Now, Jessop is fighting for custody of her eight children in a courtroom where she doesn't think her concerns about her ex-husband's polygamous lifestyle or his belief in underage marriages for himself or his daughters are being considered at all.

Rep. David Lujan, a Phoenix Democrat who is helping Jessop in her case, wants to change that. He has introduced a bill that would bar judges from awarding custody to a parent who practices child bigamy, a polygamous relationship involving someone underage.

The measure is inspired by the plight of women fleeing Warren Jeffs' fundamentalist sect in Colorado City, which has come under scrutiny for the spiritual marriages of underage girls to older men.

Lujan said the bill is designed to address the women's biggest fear: that they will have to leave their children behind.

But the bill raises questions of religious freedom and what standards courts should look at when determining custody of children.

It has passed the House Human Services committee unanimously for two years in a row, but has been blocked from proceeding by Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Mesa, who has refused to hear it in his judiciary committee.

He calls HB 2009 a "bad bill" that builds a false assumption into state law: Someone who practices child bigamy is not necessarily a bad parent, he says.

The state's long battle

Historically, Arizona has had a spotty record when it comes to wading into the practices of groups that believe salvation lies in the marriages of men to multiple women. A crackdown on the polygamous community of Short Creek (now known as Colorado City) along the Utah line in the 1950s sparked a national backlash. Pictures of families being torn apart inspired sympathy for the polygamists and outcries that the state had gone too far.

A renewed focus in recent years on underage marriages within Colorado City's Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints led to the prosecution of several men from that group, including Jeffs, the group's prophet.

In 2004, lawmakers made child bigamy a felony in Arizona, allowing prosecutors to go after parents and religious leaders who promote the practice.

But critics say that those efforts haven't gone far enough and say Lujan's bill is needed to provide an extra layer of protection for women and children if they decide to leave one of the growing number of polygamist groups in Arizona.

Lujan has worked with several women through his position as an attorney with the non-profit Defenders of Children. He said these women often leave with few resources and face long and costly custody battles.

"This will reassure women that the courts will back them up if they want to leave," he said.

Now, Lujan says, judges in custody cases confronted with allegations of polygamy or child bigamy "are basically looking the other way," leaving young girls living in homes where they face the threat of being married off in their teens.

As it was originally drafted, the bill would have addressed parents practicing polygamy, not just child bigamy. But Lujan said he changed it to avoid arguments that it tramples on religious freedom.

"My intent is to look at those engaged in what I believe is child abuse, and that is child bigamy," Lujan said.

The bill would not allow judges to grant custody or unsupervised visitation to someone who has practiced child bigamy, unless the court makes a written finding that it would not pose a significant risk to the child.

But Farnsworth contends that judges already consider child abuse, domestic violence and other issues in custody disputes. And child bigamy is already a crime.

He notes that Arizona law defines the practice of child bigamy to include those who transport a minor to such a marriage ceremony or minors who themselves have multiple spouses - and those individuals could also lose custody of their children.

There is no "nexus of connectivity" between being a bad parent and engaging in those practices, he said. The court should focus on whether the person is fit to have custody of the child.

Lujan said that if the bill does not move in the House, he thinks he has the support to revive it in the Senate.

Mother's cry for help

For Sarine Jessop, the law would help her convince the court of what she already believes: that her husband's beliefs put her children in danger.

Raised in a Utah polygamous group, Jessop married her husband at 17. They moved to Arizona a decade ago, to a polygamous compound near St. Johns, which is not affiliated with the FLDS of Colorado City but holds similar beliefs, she said.

She said she lives in constant fear that her ex-husband will abscond to Mexico with her children during his visitations.

He has courted teenage girls, she said, and she worries he will push his daughters into early marriages. Last year, he sent the three eldest girls a pamphlet on the sanctity of marriage: They were 7, 10 and 11 years old at the time, she said.

"I live every day in fear for my children's safety," said Jessop, who notes how hard it is to break out of some of these groups. "I feel like I'm screaming my lungs out, and no one is listening to me."

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