4 Feb 2008

Bill would shield children of polygamists

East Valley Tribune - February 1, 2008
Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services

State lawmakers are trying to make it more difficult for at least some of those who practice polygamy to get custody of their children in divorce cases.

Without dissent, the House Committee on Human Services on Thursday approved legislation barring judges from granting sole or even joint custody to a parent who has practiced child bigamy. The only exception would be if a court determined there is "no significant risk to the child."

HB2009 would impose similar restrictions against granting unsupervised visitation.

State law already makes it a crime for anyone who is already married to wed a child, whether that second - or subsequent - wedding is recognized by the state or solely by a religion. But Flora Jessup, an advocate for women forced into multiple marriages, said the 2004 law is not really enforced.

Rep. David Lujan, D-Phoenix, said some women in polygamous relationships do try to leave. In fact, he said the conviction in Utah last year of Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, of violating rape laws by arranging plural marriages of minors, may encourage others to get out of these plural marriages.

"But when they leave the polygamous communities, the first thing they do is they go to court and try to get custody of their children,'' Lujan said. "And we're still seeing courts that are awarding custody to the fathers who are engaging in bigamy."

Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson urged lawmakers to approve the measure.

"For the past 10 years I've worked with these victims," he told committee members.

"These vicious abusers of the cults have manipulated our court system to continue the cycle against these victims and our children," Johnson said. "This will be one more tool that can be used in hopefully breaking that cycle."

The measure would not extend the same restrictions on all polygamous marriages.

Lujan had a proposal last year to do that but ran into opposition from residents of the community of Centennial Park, a polygamous community near - but unrelated - to Jeffs' FLDS community of Colorado City. Members there have said they do not engage in child polygamy and should not be penalized for what they believe is a legitimate option for consenting adults.

Technically, the state constitution bans all polygamy. But only polygamy involving children carries a statutory penalty.

The measure now goes to the House Judiciary Committee.


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