Woman loses custody to ‘sister wife’

Anti-polygamy activists fear kids will go to father

ST. GEORGE — Tamara Phelps, a woman who fled her polygamous marriage 10 years ago, leaving her children behind, would not answer the phone or the door at her Cedar City home Wednesday afternoon.

After eight months of having her children back with her, she lost the custody battle last week — this time to her spiritual husband’s first and legal wife, Amy Black, according to 5th District Justice Court documents obtained by The Spectrum from an anti-polygamy group, Help the Child Brides of St. George.

Judge Hans Q. Chamberlain in Cedar City also ruled that Phelps must undergo counseling. The children — ages 11, 13 and 15 — are required to enroll in public schools, the documents said. But they are not allowed to be taught polygamy or have any contact with their father, Orson William Black, who was served warrants in March on charges of sexual conduct with the children.

Phelps’ three children were taken last Friday to Hildale to Amy Black, who has 10 children of her own, said Pennie Peterson, an anti-polygamy activist who has helped Phelps in court. Despite the court orders, Peterson, whose two sisters also were Amy’s “sister wives,” speculated that the children probably would be sent to Orson William Black soon. In all, she said, Black has “married” six women.

It was like: “I’m sleeping with your husband; I want your kids,” Peterson said in a telephone interview from Phoenix. “It blows me away that they even consider that.”

Utah Attorney General’s Office spokesman Paul Murphy said the office did not get involved with the case until Wednesday at the judge’s request. He referred the call from The Spectrum to Carla Staley, the ad litem in the case, who could not be reached late Wednesday night.

But Peterson and another activist, Bob Curran, said Staley supported putting Phelps’ children into Amy Black’s home.

Phelps was diagnosed with post-traumatic syndrome, Peterson said, but “she has never been declared an unfit mother.” Phelps ran away from the polygamist lifestyle 10 years ago without her children, Peterson said.

She has entered counseling and homemaker programs. She also has found work, Curran said. Phelps, he argued, was damaged no worse than other women abused by polygamists.

“They destroyed the women’s self-esteem,” said Curran, founder of Help the Child Brides. “They give them no skills whatsoever. They blame them then for not having self-esteem or skills.”

On March 20, Phelps and Peterson accompanied officers from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office to serve Orson William Black protective orders from both Iron and Mohave counties to give over the children. The Arizona Attorney General’s Office had issued warrants for “acts of sexual conduct with the minor children,” according to the police report.

The officers surrounded Black’s house in Hildale at night. But as Black’s attorney protested, officers were ordered to leave the house until sheriff’s office officials could speak with the attorney. Black reportedly fled to Mexico before the officers returned.

An estimated of 6,000 polygamists live in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The majority of its residents belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, of which Orson William Black is not a member.

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