Bigamists' custody rights targeted

Phoenix, USA - An Arizona lawmaker wants to prohibit courts from giving sole or joint custody of children to polygamists who marry underage girls.

The bill proposed by Rep. David Lujan, a Democrat who represents central Phoenix, also would allow only supervised visits for a parent who has or "will continue" to engage in child bigamy.

The proposed law would require only "sufficient evidence" of child bigamy, rather than a conviction for the crime, for a judge to limit the parent's interaction.

The bill is one of two Lujan is sponsoring that deal with polygamy. The other would set aside $500,000 to provide transitional living services in Phoenix or Flagstaff, Ariz., for women and children who have left a polygamous community.

That would spare them from having to use shelters in St. George, where it is more likely they'll run into and be harassed by people they know, Lujan said.

Lujan's custody bill currently states it would apply to anyone practicing polygamy, but he said he plans to amend it to focus on child bigamy, based on feedback from other lawmakers. Child bigamy involves a marriage, legal or otherwise, to someone under the age of 18.

The Arizona Legislature is in the second week of its 2007 session and Lujan's bill has not been assigned to a committee.

"It still has a ways to go," he said.

So far, no bills related to polygamy have been introduced in the Utah Legislature, which opened its 2007 session Monday.

Arizona, like Utah, has focused its polygamy-related prosecutions on cases involving crimes against children, such as sexual conduct with a minor. But neither state has brought charges against anybody for child bigamy.

Lujan is an attorney with Justice for Children, a national child advocacy organization that has worked with women and children from Colorado City, Ariz.

The town is located at the Utah/Arizona state line and adjoins Hildale, Utah. The two towns are home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect that practices polygamy.

When women leaving polygamous relationships attempt to get custody of their children, courts often treat the situation as a traditional divorce and give the parents equal access, Lujan said.

"My bill would say that cannot happen," he said. "I believe it is child abuse what is going on and I don't think someone who is going to continue to engage in that kind of child abuse should get custody."

The proposed law would primarily benefit women who were themselves child brides, said Flora Jessop, an anti-polygamy activist.

"They never got a choice or a voice in the matter and now that they have children because of that situation they shouldn't have to get tangled up in a court system that didn't protect them," Jessop said.

Brian Barnard, a Salt Lake attorney who specializes in constitutional issues, said Lujan's proposed bill is "troublesome."

"It is depriving that person of a familial right," Barnard said. "It becomes a presumption that everybody that fits into that category is somehow unfit to have custody or visit the children and that kind of presumption, when it deals with a fundamental right, would probably be found to be unconstitutional."

In Utah, while one Supreme Court ruling upheld the taking of children from polygamous families, later decisions have found polygamy alone is not reason enough to block an adoption or to not grant custody of children.

The issue of child bigamy raises a different question, but one that should be left to a court to evaluate, said Rod Parker, a Salt Lake attorney. Parker is representing a U.S. Supreme Court petition brought by a Utah polygamist convicted of bigamy for a spiritual marriage to a minor.

"This is one step away from saying polygamists shouldn't have children," Parker said. "Evidence of whatever an individual is doing, whether that is polygamy or bigamy or shacking up, is something the court should be permitted to know about and take into consideration in determining what is in the best interest of the children."