Democratic lawmaker ready to try again with polygamy-custody bill

Phoenix, USA - Rebuffed last session, a Democratic lawmaker said he's ready to reintroduce a reworked version of a bill intended to help women leave polygamist husbands.

Rep. David Lujan, D-Phoenix, wants to require courts to grant sole custody to women and prevent unsupervised parenting time when a father is a married adult who has married or cohabitated with a minor, a practice known as child bigamy.

"There needs to be justice for these children," said Lujan, who also is an attorney for a children's justice organization.

Lujan said he is optimistic the bill will pass during the next legislative session because he has narrowed its focus in response to concerns that stalled the previous version in the House Judiciary Committee.

The previous version dealt with fathers found to have engaged in polygamy, child bigamy or both. Lujan said he is narrowing the new version to deal only with child bigamy, which is a felony under Arizona law.

Lujan said there has been an increase in women wanting to leave plural marriages. He said Arizona law needs to support them.

"This issue is as great as ever, with particularly the conviction of Warren Jeffs," Lujan said, referring to the recent trial of the polygamist leader.

Lujan introduced a bill last session after a visit to Colorado City with a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect that practices polygamy.

Flora Jessop, who fled a plural marriage and now is an activist and author, said women fleeing polygamist husbands need help under the law because they are often harassed as they share custody.

"If they want witnesses to come forward and testify, there first has to be protection for the women and children," Jessop said.

"We had several new cases come up in which numerous children are taken from the protective mothers and are returned to the father in polygamist groups where your children are taught that everybody outside are disciples of Satan," Jessop said.

Jessop is executive director of the Child Protection Project, an organization that raises awareness about child abuse in polygamist communities.

Robin Scoins, founder of Arizona Family Rights Advocacy Institute, an organization that assists individuals who are at risk of losing custody of a child, said that polygamists shouldn't regain custody of their children.

"I think polygamy is not the best interest of any child to grow up in that environment," Scoins said. "And the women trying to escape want to get a better lifestyle but were unable to keep their children."

John R. Lewellyn, a former Salt Lake County sheriff's lieutenant recognized as an expert on polygamy, said as long as the government turns a blind eye to polygamy girls will be forced into plural marriages.

"Many women will need protection because the men will fight, especially after their daughters because they see them as an asset," Lewellyn said. "And they know darn well that they're going to be raised and brainwashed into becoming plural wives."