State lawmakers have passed a bill that appears to crack down on child abandonment in the fundamentalist communities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz.
It appears aimed at the phenomenon of the so-called “Lost Boys” — teens who have been ousted from the Fundamentalist LDS Church. HB23, sponsored by Rep. Lorie Fowlke, R-Orem, makes child abandonment a form of child abuse, and makes it a third-degree felony for anyone or any enterprise to encourage child abandonment.
“We’re really focused on the organizations who force these parents to throw away their children in order to be able to to continue to remain part of the community,” Fowlke told the Deseret Morning News on Thursday.
Fowlke said she ran the bill at the request of an attorney representing some of the “Lost Boys” who are suing the FLDS Church and its leader, Warren Jeffs. She also consulted with the Utah Attorney General’s Office, basing part of the bill on racketeering statutes.
“The bill is aimed at trying to find a way for prosecutors to go after those organizations,” Fowlke said.
Advocates say there are hundreds of teens who have either run away or been kicked out of the polygamous sect for a host of “sins,” such as watching movies, kissing someone or wearing shirtsleeves too short. Some left on their own, rather than live by the church’s strict codes of conduct.
Advocates say some have wound up living on the streets or crashing with friends and relatives in cramped apartments, while others have gotten in trouble with the law or wound up on drugs. Fowlke co-sponsored legislation last year allowing teens to seek emancipation from the courts in relation to the problem.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office hopes HB23 is an incentive for parents to care for their children, and a tool to go after organizations pressuring them to get rid of their children.
“Dropping a 12- or 13-year-old boy in the desert is an awful thing and there should be consequences for it,” said Paul Murphy, the attorney general’s Safety Net coordinator, who tries to work with polygamous communities grappling with abuse and neglect in the closed societies.
Murphy said it remains to be seen how much impact the law would have. To date, no cases have been brought to the attorney general’s office for possible charges.
“Judging from the boys I’ve talked to, very few would be willing to testify against their parents,” he said. “They think their parents are victims.”