Analysis: Enforcing child protection laws isn't easy in closed religious communities

Vancouver Sun/April 17, 2008

The same problems that have bedevilled prosecutors in British Columbia, Utah and Arizona are making life difficult for Texas authorities, who over the last two weeks have apprehended 416 children from a walled, fundamentalist Mormon compound.

Backed by tanks and snipers, child protection officials moved into the compound after a phone call from a pregnant 16-year-old mother who claimed she had been forced into a plural marriage with a 50-year-old man, who subsequently abused her.

Yet nothing may come of it unless the state can prove its allegations that girls as young as 13 were assigned to "spiritual marriages" and that others are at risk of similar harm.

As Thursday's chaotic court proceeding in San Angelo, Tex. attended by 350 lawyers indicated, nothing is simple when it comes to closed, religious communities.

The prosecution's attempt to enter the medical records of an 18-year-old girl and two 17-year-olds caused a 40-minute delay as lawyers scrambled to see the records and then determine if they objected.

What eventually was entered into evidence were documents indicating that 10 girls had been married by age 16 to men as old as 56, and that one man had 22 wives.

But so far, there are no victims, only records, because it's almost impossible to get anyone to say anything because they risk losing everything - their church, their family and their salvation.

Many children won't say who their parents are or even who they are. It's possible some have Canadian connections or may even be Canadian since the surnames on the court documents match some of those in Bountiful - Johnson, Barlow, Steed, Jessop and Jeffs.

Part of the confusion, according to people with close connections to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is that last summer, the jailed prophet Warren Jeffs ordered dozens of children to be taken from their homes in Utah and Arizona and reassigned to new parents in the Texas compound.

As FLDS members, the children are taught that since the outsiders are evil, it's okay to lie to them to protect the Lord, their prophet and their fathers.

Only the most devout FLDS are at the Yearning for Zion ranch, which was built only after Jeffs became a fugitive, charged in both Utah and Arizona for sex crimes involving the marriages of young girls in the twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City.

(Jeffs was convicted last September in Utah as an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl who he had forced to marry her 18-year-old first cousin. He is awaiting trial in Arizona on similar charges, although some charges have already been dropped because one witness recanted her grand jury testimony and another was implicated in a scheme to blackmail Jeffs.)

To try to straighten out the mess, the Texas judge has ordered DNA tests.

The fallout from the raid echoes what happened after two similar raids in 1953. One was on the breakaway Doukhobor sect called the Sons of Freedom not far from Bountiful, B.C. The other was in Short Creek, Ariz. on the fundamentalist Mormon community that spawned the YFZ ranch.

Following both, children were put into government care.

Freedomite children remained in residential schools for a number of years. But in 2004, only a few months after then-attorney-general Geoff Plant had ordered RCMP to investigate Bountiful, Plant apologized for the 1953 raid.

In Arizona, families were soon reunited because of a public outcry after the media showed images of crying children ripped from their tearful mothers' arms, and Gov. Howard Pyle was soundly defeated at the next election.

So, it's no surprise that over the past couple of days, mothers from Yearning for Zion ranch have been trotted out for media consumption by church leaders and their lawyers. The women, who know nothing other than polygamy or little of the outside world, say virtually the same thing - that their rights have been violated, America's promise of being the "land of the free" broken and that they "need" (not want) their children back.

Many speak in a stilted cadence that is eerily similar to Jeffs' voice on the taped sermons that followers play over and over, including many in which he urges women to 'keep sweet' and be obedient.

What initially separated the Texas case from the one being contemplated in British Columbia by Attorney-General Wally Oppal was the victim - the 16-year-old mother who sparked the raid.

But she hasn't stepped forward to testify. Nor, apparently, have any others.

It may leave Texas Attorney-General Greg Abbott with the same dilemma facing Oppal: Try to make a case with only records and no victims or charge some of the men with bigamy (Texas has no statute against polygamy) and hope the law survives a constitutional challenge.

Those are Oppal's choices since RCMP didn't find a victim willing to testify and Oppal has rejected two special prosecutors' recommendations to refer the anti-polygamy law to the B.C. Court of Appeal to determine whether religious freedom includes the practice of polygamy.

He's been taking his time until now. But with the Texas raid, there is added pressure to do something.

Because to do nothing as his predecessors did, Oppal risks British Columbia and Canada becoming a magnet for fundamentalist Mormons escaping prosecution in the United States.

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