Sect kids not being educated, Arizona's AG tells Congress

Capitol Media Services, Tucson, Arizona/July 25,2008

Hundreds of children in the polygamous community of Colorado City are not getting an education, Attorney General Terry Goddard said Thursday.

But the Mohave County school chief said that figure is likely exaggerated.

Goddard, testifying before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, said close to 1,000 youngsters were pulled out of Colorado City public schools in 2000 on the orders of Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints.

But Goddard said the church-run schools have been closed since Jeffs' arrest two years ago.

Goddard acknowledged that Arizona law permits parents to educate children at home.

He said, though, the law requires the parents to file affidavits with the county school superintendent of the intent to home school. Goddard said only 12 such affidavits have been recorded.

"Children are consistently observed in the late morning playing on the streets throughout Colorado City and (the Utah community of) Hilldale," he testified. "We also have received information that boys as young as 12 years of age are sent out to work on construction sites."

Mohave County School Superintendent Mike File acknowledged enrollment in the school district went from close to 1,100 to about 150 after Jeffs' decree.

But File said about 300 of those children have since re- enrolled in the schools. And he questioned Goddard's estimate of those who are truant.

"My personal opinion, having been up there in late March, I don't think there's that many children left in the community," File said. He said many families have moved elsewhere, possibly to other FLDS communities, like El Dorado, Texas.

File conceded that doesn't mean every child who is supposed to be in public school - everyone between ages 6 and 16 - is there or being legally home schooled.

"You can't walk up and go door-to-door and say, 'You need to sign this affidavit,' " he said. "As we see, they don't follow the prototypical laws that everyone else does anyway."

Goddard's comments came as he told members of Congress Arizona and other states need more help from the federal government in investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by leaders and members of the church.

He said much of what and has been taking place in Colorado City is beyond his jurisdiction.

And Goddard said though federal prosecutors have talked a lot about cases they're pursuing there has yet to be a single charge filed.

"We think that there may be evidence that there's tax evasion going on," he said.

And Goddard said federal laws regulating child labor are being broken and that federal civil rights of teen boys are being violated by the city marshals who are forcing them out of town so the older men don't have to compete for brides.

"It seems like the federal government has got to step up to a further degree," he said.

But Goddard said nothing he is doing, or wants the federal government to do, should be interpreted as infringing on the religious liberties of church members.

He said that's why his office and that of Mark Shurtleff, his Utah counterpart, have focused their efforts on specific crimes, like child abuse.

"That gives us the benefit of a specific targeted prosecution for a demonstrable crime and I think is total protection against the allegation, although they still make it, that what we're doing is stigmatizing a religious belief, not a practice," he said.

"In both Utah and Arizona, we've made it very clear that it's the practice we're looking at and it's children we're trying to protect and their mothers right behind them in terms of the victim class," Goddard continued. "We have more than enough to do in following up on those complaints."

Goddard specifically said he doesn't want a repeat of what happened in 1953 when then-Gov. Howard Pyle ordered the Department of Public Safety to raid the polygamous community, then known as Short Creek, to round up and arrest people for violating state bigamy laws.

He said most Arizonans perceived that to be an attack on the "lifestyle" of individuals.

Aside from leading to Pyle's defeat at the next election, Goddard said the raid made FLDS members more suspicious of the government which, in turn, enabled church leaders to exercise "ever-increasing autocratic control over their followers."

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