Utah AG acts quickly to keep 17-year-old safe
ST. GEORGE — In the state’s first case concerning runaways from polygamist families after the recent shakeup in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Utah Attorney General’s Office intervened Saturday morning in St. George to put a Colorado City girl in state protective custody.
The 17-year-old girl, whose name wasn’t released for safety reasons, was picked up from home at around 7:35 a.m. by a man driving a Chevy truck, according to police reports. An undisclosed complainant left her father’s cell phone number with the dispatcher, asking officers to “hold the female for return to family.”
The girl contacted the DOVE Center, a domestic violence shelter, where calls were made to Bob Curran, founder of Help the Child Brides, a St. George agency that targets abuses in the polygamous culture. Hours later, said Paul Murphy, spokesman for Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a state attorney appeared before a judge and put the girl in the custody of Utah State Division of Child and Family Services.
The case, coming one day after the Maricopa County Juvenile Court in Phoenix issued protective orders so two Colorado City runaways wouldn’t be sent home, has relieved many child advocates and anti-polygamy activists. As recently as 1999, law-enforcement officers have sent girls who tried to run away back to their forced marriages or abusive families in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
With an estimated 10,000 residents, the border towns are dominated by the FLDS church, an offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The prophet, Warren Jeffs, surprised many a week ago by excommunicating 21 men from the FLDS church, which still teaches polygamy as a central tenet. The men — including then-Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow — were stripped of their priesthood, their wives and children and their right to live in town.
“With this split, and with the states of Utah and Arizona about to take a more active role by setting up agencies in Colorado City-Hildale,” Curran said, ” maybe those citizens will have access to the freedoms that the rest of us take for granted.”
Utah prosecutors have been investigating alleged welfare and tax fraud, incest and the forced marriages of young girls to adult men. With talks of religious splits and eruption of violence, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has established a hotline, (800) 897-5465, for use by victims and runaways from the polygamist culture. Law enforcement and child services agencies have been cooperating to open offices or safe houses in the Colorado City area.
DCFS will take into temporary custody any child who is abused, forced into marriage or simply scared but with nowhere to go, said Carol Sisco, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Human Services. The division will not return children in danger to their families, she said. Instead, case workers will recommend to juvenile court to either send them to foster care or to responsible family members.
“If the AG holds the ground,” said Jay Beswick, a child protection advocate who has helped women flee polygamous marriages, “We’ll see more runaways.”
Beswick, who has researched the FLDS church for more than three years, predicted a five-way split within one of the largest polygamist enclaves in North America.
Jeffs, who is rumored to be building a compound in Mexico, will likely keep about 500 faithful, he said. A second group will follow Winston Blackmore, who now has about 800 polygamists in Canada, Beswick said. Blackmore came to Colorado City last week and spoke briefly Saturday before about 500 people at a funeral in St. George.
Some FLDS members will run away or leave the Arizona Strip with their families, Beswick said. A small number will likely join the Second Ward in nearby Centennial Park, which was established by Marrion Hammon about 20 years ago amid a power struggle withing the FLDS church. The Second Ward is believed to be less strict regarding attire.
But the biggest group will be followers of the Barlows, whose family now makes up about 40 percent of the area’s population, Beswick said. A letter prophesying the eldest Barlow brother, Louis Barlow, as the prophet surfaced last Tuesday in the Colorado City area. The excommunicated Barlows — including Dan; his son Roland Barlow; his brothers Joe, Louis and Nephi Barlow; and Louis’ son Thomas Barlow — were spotted last week in St. George.
“I don’t think they’ll leave polygamy and disappear,” Beswick said. “I can’t see them denouncing their family, taking on one wife and living in St. George.”