ST. GEORGE — The runaways ran again — this time away from a St. George-area home back to the homes they tried to flee in the Colorado City-Hildale area.
No, the six youths didn’t want the government’s help to leave the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, even though law enforcement and children’s services agencies have vowed to protect them against domestic abuse or the forced marriages of young girls to adult men.
Instead, they returned Sunday night after barely a day or two out of the polygamist enclave, which has been teeming with uncertainty since Jan. 10, when the prophet, Warren Jeffs, surprised many by ousting 21 men — including then-Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow and his three brothers — from the FLDS church.
An offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the FLDS church still teaches polygamy as a central tenet. Many believe the Barlows, sons to FLDS church founder John Y. Barlow, will fight back for control of the area’s 10,000 residents.
The return of the six children, coming after two 16-year-old were placed by a judge in foster home in Phoenix and a 17-year-old girl was put in state protective custody in St. George, is a setback, said Jay Beswick, a child protection advocate who has helped women flee polygamous marriages.
“For all the risk they took and being willing to run, they are more at risk now for having to return home,” he said. “They don’t trust society or the system because the system has failed them for the last five decades.”
Governmental intervention became rare after July 1953, when Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle had the Short Creek men — including Dan Barlow — jailed in Kingman on charges of bigamy, adultery and rape and put women and children in the state welfare system. The Short Creek Raid proved to be a publicity disaster for then-Gov. Pyle, who lost his re-election the next year.
As recently as 2001, Beswick said, law-enforcement officers had sent underage girls like 15-year-old Caroline Cooke back to their parents. Those being returned are often punished physically and shunned by family.
While Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said the state has gathered “adequate resources” — including shelters and the Division of Child and Family Services — to help children fleeing the FLDS church, Beswick said it’s not enough.
“There’s a safety net,” Beswick said, “but I don’t think it works.”
Building trust takes time, Shurtleff said. Regardless of what has happened in the past, he said he is determined to protect the abused and bring the abusers to justice.
“We just want to be here and available,” Shurtleff said. “If there’s any abuse, we have a duty to protect these women and children, and even men — if their civil rights are abused.”
Utah prosecutors have been investigating alleged welfare and tax fraud, incest and the forced marriages of young girls to adult men. Last August, a Washington County jury found Rodney Holm, a former Colorado City police officer, guilty of one count of bigamy and two counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a 16- or 17-year-old.
But parents in Colorado City don’t force their children to marry, said a parent, who insisted his name not be used for this article. They are no different than “any loving parents,” he said.
“We don’t force our children to do anything they don’t want to do,” the father said in an interview from Colorado City. “We just want to be a peaceful people. We try to mind our own business. We love our children.”
Shurtleff said he had talked with a man for four hours, listening to his anguish over losing his wife and children to another man. Women, Shurtleff said, are treated “like property,” and told to do “whatever they are told.”
“I was shocked,” Shurtleff said. “How deeply ingrained these people are.”
The recent turmoil in the FLDS church may lead to more exposure and opportunities for prosecution.
“But it all depends on how it turns out,” he said.
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