Arizona has become a haven for sects that practice polygamy and child bigamy because it lacks the laws needed to protect victims, an activist who left a polygamous marriage told state lawmakers Thursday.
“We’re destroying generation after generation of children by allowing this molestation of children to continue,” said Flora Jessop, executive director of the Child Protection Project, a group that helps those who leave polygamists.
Jessop testified before the House Committee on Human Services, which then endorsed a bill that would prevent judges from granting child custody or unsupervised parenting time to those involved in child bigamy.
Under Arizona law, child bigamy includes married adults taking minors as spouses and adults causing minors to marry adults who already have spouses.
HB 2009, introduced by Rep. David Lujan, D-Phoenix, would bar judges from awarding custody to a parent who engages in child bigamy unless a judge states in writing why that action poses no threat to the child.
“What we’re seeing is when women get the courage to leave these polygamist communities the first thing they do is go to the courts and try to get custody,” Lujan said. “And the courts time and time again are giving custody to the fathers, who continue to engage in forcing underage children to marry.”
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Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson, who addressed the committee, said he has seen firsthand the abuse children suffer in polygamist communities.
“This will be one more tool that we can use in hopefully breaking that cycle,” Johnson said.
The committee voted 8-0 in favor, with two members absent, forwarding the bill to the House Judiciary Committee.
“I hope that this year the Legislature does the right thing, (and) we get this past the body,” Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, said in explaining his vote. “I can’t believe we’re still debating this issue.”
The bill is similar to one pressed unsuccessfully last year by Lujan, who also is a staff attorney for the Arizona chapter of Justice for Children, a national child advocacy organization.
That bill, which passed one House committee but stalled in another, also covered those who engage in polygamy. This session, Lujan’s bill deals only with cases of child bigamy.
Attorney General Terry Goddard applauded Lujan’s bill, saying child bigamy is a problem in Colorado City and other isolated towns in northern Arizona. Goddard said women who escape polygamous marriages often are forced to leave their children behind.
“When a parent makes the very difficult and sometimes wrenching decision to leave a polygamist situation, the courts should not be involved in forcing the children to go back,” Goddard said.