SALT LAKE CITY – Three teenage runaways from the nation’s largest polygamist enclave are in state custody, but one group that works to protect children from polygamy says reports of another eight children running away last weekend were exaggerated.
“This is all much ado about nothing,” Bob Curran of the St. George group Help the Child Brides told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
It was widely reported by news outlets, including the AP, that eight teenagers – a mix of boys and girls – ran away from polygamist homes in the border towns of Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz., over the weekend.
Somehow, word leaked that the youths were fleeing their homes in the wake of a shake-up within the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has about 10,000 members in the two towns. Critics of the polygamist havens have feared that the shake-up would prompt a mass exodus of children, mainly girls, who feared they would be married or “reassigned” to other families.
The eight youths, Curran says, actually stopped in St. George during a Saturday night joy ride and found that they would not make it the 35 miles back to their homes in time for their curfew.
So, they waited out the night at the home of a man who houses and employs young men of legal age who have left the twin communities.
“When they were gone the next day and they went back home, I really had my suspicions,” Curran said.
But by that time, talk of the runaways had taken on a life of its own.
Curran blamed anti-polygamist advocates in Phoenix for wanting so badly the story to be true, they might have fueled it, feeding the story to numerous media outlets.
“People just assumed it was correct, I feel terrible about it,” said Curran, whose group helps real runaways from polygamist homes. “Our credibility takes a hit.”
Two 16-year-old girls did run away Jan. 10 after FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs excommunicated about 20 men, including the mayor of Colorado City. The girls were taken to Phoenix, where a juvenile court ruled they would be allowed to remain in foster homes instead of state custody.
Anti-polygamy advocate Flora Jessop, who drove the girls to Phoenix, maintains the story of the additional runaways is true. She blames the state of Utah for the teens going back, saying the youths returned after fearing that state officials would treat them as criminals – an idea their parents have stressed, Jessop said.
“This is what we are trying to get through to the authorities is that these kids cannot be locked up,” said Jessop, a former resident of Colorado City who ran away after she was married to a cousin at age 16. “They think they are criminals.”
Jessop said those considering leaving the towns may have been spooked by the plight of the other confirmed runaway, a 16-year-old girl who is in the protection of the Utah Division of Child and Family Services.
“That is the only child we have heard from,” DCFS spokeswoman Carol Sisco said Tuesday.
Jessop says that girl has not contacted anyone since being taken into state custody Saturday, and the silence makes others reluctant to flee.
“She has not been seen or heard from,” Jessop said. “Now her family and friends are calling me, saying, ‘Why haven’t we heard from her?’ “
Said Sisco: “We certainly don’t put kids in jail.”
The child was to be interviewed by DCFS investigators Tuesday.
“If we’re convinced the child has really been abused or neglected, and there is no way to reunite them with the immediate family right away, the first step would be to place her with other family members,” Sisco said. “If they can’t do that, they can go into foster care.”
A judge would ultimately decide the child’s fate.
However, polygamy by itself if not a reason to remove a child from the home, even though the practice is banned by the Utah Constitution.
“For DCFS to remove a child, we have to prove abuse or neglect occurred,” Sisco said. “Just because they live in a polygamous home does not mean they are being abused or neglected.”
Jessop claimed Tuesday she has heard of four more children who have left the enclave, but they have gone to private homes in the St. George area. “All are very scared to come forward.”
If true, the runaways are not required to report to authorities, but those providing them housing must, Sisco said.
State law requires a person knowingly housing or harboring a minor who runs away to inform the minor’s parents or guardians.
“If they think the child is being abused, they are required to contact the state,” she said.