The 16-year-olds bolted Sunday while on a weekend camping trip in west Phoenix, said Flora Jessop of Phoenix, a former Colorado City resident who left as a teenager in 1986.
She said the girls were scared that they would be returned to their parents. In letters they left behind, Jessop said the girls wrote that they feared being locked up or forced to marry much older men if they were sent home.
Child Protective Services spokeswoman Liz Barker said Tuesday that police have been notified and law enforcement statewide have orders to hold the girls if they run across them. Barker also said CPS had no plans to return the teenagers to their parents.
Earlier this month, another girl, 17, who also ran away from Colorado City, was returned to her parents. An investigation determined that that child was not in danger.
Jessop said the other two girls knew the 17-year-old: “They were very, very afraid that that’s what was going to happen to them.”
This is the first time children fleeing polygamist families have been placed in state protective custody. Typically, the children have been treated like any other teenage runaways and returned home.
With the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the isolated communities of Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, under scrutiny by law enforcement, child welfare officials are handling these cases carefully.
Barker said CPS is mandated by federal law to make reasonable efforts to engage families in services that could remedy the reasons the child was placed in foster care. The girls’ parents are cooperating.
But CPS also is allowed to conduct what they call “concurrent case planning,” pursuing two case plans simultaneously. In cases like these, CPS could consider reunification while also planning to remove children if reunification proves not to be in their best interests.
A judge has final approval.
At a hearing on Thursday, a judge ordered Jessop not to have any more contact with the children at the request of one of the girl’s fathers. Barker said he was concerned about Jessop’s continued involvement with the children.
Jessop helped bring the girls to Phoenix after they ran away from home. She has been an outspoken critic of polygamy.
The girls are with an 18-year-old niece, the daughter of one of the girl’s older brother, Jessop said. The girls contacted family members to let them know they were safe but refused to say where they were. The girls likely have only $50 between them.
“I am so angry at the state of Arizona because they put them in the position that they felt they had to run again and now no one knows where they are,” Jessop said. “I feel like we have let them down.”