|Bill would help women leaving polygamists|
By David Biscobing and Mike Meyer|
Cronkite News Service
PHOENIX - Women who leave polygamist husbands should be given sole custody of their children, a state lawmaker says.
Rep. David Lujan, D-Phoenix, is sponsoring two bills he says would help protect women and children in places such as Colorado City in northern Arizona.
"What's happening up there is clearly child and spousal abuse," said Lujan, who is also an attorney for a children's justice organization.
HB 2325, which had yet to be assigned to a committee as of Tuesday, deals with polygamy and child bigamy, an offense that includes married adults taking minors as spouses and adults causing minors to marry adults who already have spouses.
The bill would give women full custody of children and would bar husbands from unsupervised visits if the court finds "sufficient evidence" that the husbands have engaged and will continue to engage in polygamy, child bigamy or both.
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.
"There needs to be a distinction between the two. Otherwise, children will be sent back and married, which is nothing but sexual abuse," he said.
Under Lujan's bill, courts would be allowed to award fathers sole or joint custody or unsupervised visits if judges state their reasons in writing and there is no significant risk to children.
Lujan said he planned to introduce another bill later this week to set aside $500,000 to help shelters in Phoenix and Flagstaff provide transportation and job training for women leaving polygamist husbands.
Helping women in Flagstaff and Phoenix would put needed distance between the women and their hometowns, Lujan said. Shelters in St. George, Utah, about 30 miles from Colorado City, are too close, he said.
"At most, they stand the chance of running into someone they know and getting harassed. There's too much of the same community," Lujan said.
Lujan is staff attorney for the Arizona chapter of Justice for Children, a national child advocacy organization based in Houston. He visited Colorado City last year with a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamist sect that dominates the community along the Utah line.
Elaine Tyler, president of the HOPE Organization, a nonprofit group in St. George, Utah, offering assistance to women leaving polygamist relationships, said granting sole custody to mothers is a good idea.
"I wish that Utah would do something as progressive," Tyler said in a telephone interview. "I don't know if it's going to pass, but I think it would give confidence and security to the mothers and children that don't want to be exposed to the preaching of polygamy."
Tyler said sending children back to polygamist communities for visits sends a confusing message.
"The kids go back to Colorado City, and they have to take off their outside world clothes and have to put on their pioneer garb," she said.
As for providing safe havens for those fleeing polygamists, Ken Verdoia, a Utah documentary filmmaker who has investigated polygamist communities, said such efforts often aren't successful.
"The walls have been built up so high around these communities. If the women even have the courage, it would be difficult to get them to leave when they will be breaking generations of family faith and tradition," said Verdoia, who also is associate director of KUED Television at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
Originally published January 23, 2007
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