Bountiful issue potentially one of child abuse, not just polygamy: watchdog

Bountiful, Canada - B.C. authorities must get more aggressive in tackling allegations of abuse in the polygamist community of Bountiful, B.C. — or risk letting Canada become a haven for religious groups that exploit young people, the province’s official child-welfare watchdog said Friday.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond urged authorities to stop looking at the Bountiful issue merely as a question of multiple wives and view it instead as one of potential child mistreatment.

Evidence unearthed in the recent prosecution of Warren Jeffs, leader of a Texas branch of the same Mormon breakaway sect that operates in Bountiful, should be enough to kick-start more assertive inquiries in Canada, she said.

Jeffs, sentenced to life in prison for sexual assault, documented the movement of girls as young as 12 from B.C. to Texas to be married to middle-aged men at his Yearning for Zion ranch.

“We need to get wise to this issue. One of the reasons is that Canada may be seen as a good place to locate [for religious sects that abuse children],” said Ms. Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth. “You have to take a fair amount of leadership to say this might not be about freedom of religion … It’s not permitted in Canada that you proffer your child into a marriage that involves a sexual relationship. It’s anathema to criminal law”

Other revelations from a constitutional court case on polygamy are also fodder for investigation, including testimony that Bountiful parents slap babies and dunk them in water as part of unusual obedience training, said Ms. Turpel-Lafond.

“I’m extremely uncomfortable with this,” said the former judge. “I think it’s abusive. I think we definitely need to investigate.”

Her comments came as the RCMP in B.C. revealed that they are, in fact, investigating allegations that children were taken to the States to be forced into marriage. The force plans to meet with the Texas Rangers, who headed the Jeffs case, though have yet to do so.

Cpl. Dan Moskaluk, an RCMP spokesman, noted in an interview that the Mounties have looked into similar allegations involving Bountiful before, only to hit obstacles in trying to build a case.

“Witnesses and victims have been reluctant to provide evidence,” he said.

The completion of the Jeffs trial, however, has created a “different environment” that the police hope will lead to more co-operation, said the officer. During the so-called reference case in Vancouver earlier this year – held to determine if the criminal ban on polygamy is constitutional – Crown lawyers tabled a list of 31 underage brides allegedly transported between B.C. and the States, including five whom Jeffs himself had married.

Police hope to go through that list and interview each young woman, said Cpl. Moskaluk.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond, whose arm’s-length agency reports to the B.C. legislature, said she has been heartened lately by the approach of Barry Penner. The province’s attorney general indicated in February that he was disturbed and offended by the new evidence from Texas and urged authorities to investigate.