Double Exposure

Arizona's finally followed Utah's lead and launched serious action to stop abuses by polygamists

And the office won't just be a social service agency. Police and state and county investigators will be on hand to probe complaints of criminal wrongdoing, particularly sexual abuse of minors.

The office will mark the first time Arizona has placed a regulatory and law enforcement facility in Colorado City independent of the fundamental Mormon polygamists who control the town.

When the multi-agency facility was first proposed last August, some anti-polygamy activists denounced the plan, suspecting it would quickly fall under the control of the fundamentalist political machine.

Brian Stauffer
Warren Jeffs' compound: The prophet's horde of wives live in structures the size of hotels.
John Dougherty
Warren Jeffs' compound: The prophet's horde of wives live in structures the size of hotels.

But Arizona AG Goddard promises that the facility will be independent of local leaders.

"If somebody wants to step up and say there is a problem, we want to make sure help is available," Goddard says. "[That help] will not be compromised by local contacts and [will be] truly independent."

The office will offer important welfare and law enforcement services, the AG says. A representative from Child Protective Services will be on hand to protect children. And Goddard says he will staff the office with an investigator to look into issues reported to CPS and other agencies involving child abuse, underage marriages and welfare benefits.

Almost since Goddard took over as AG this year, he has contended that the state is stymied in making prosecutions against statutory rapists in Colorado City because witnesses, in the throes of the polygamist society, are afraid to come forward. He sees the center as a way to provide protection to women and children, who could later assist the state in prosecutions.

Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who initiated a grand jury investigation into Colorado City in 2000 while she was attorney general, has also endorsed the plan to open the office and has pledged that the state Department of Economic Security will provide long-term staffing.

"It's definitely moving forward," Napolitano spokesman Paul Allvin says about the center. "The governor wants something up there . . . possibly in the early spring."

Help the Child Brides, a St. George, Utah, anti-polygamy activist group, hailed the decision to open the multi-agency facility.

"It's what we have been hoping and praying for," says Bob Curran, director of the volunteer group that operates an information and outreach center in St. George.

Curran says he is particularly pleased that Arizona is making a commitment that the office will be independent of the Mormon polygamists who control the town.

"Any involvement by them would have doomed the project, as no citizens would have dared to avail themselves of the services," Curran says.

Utah is also moving forward with plans to establish a permanent presence in the area, possibly in conjunction with Arizona or in a separate facility.

"We are absolutely committed to first of all having a law enforcement presence in the area," says Utah AG Shurtleff.

For starters, Shurtleff plans to get a billboard erected in Colorado City with the 800 number of a law enforcement agency outside the control of the fundamentalist hierarchy.

The multi-agency center in Arizona will be staffed with at least two DES workers, says Director David Bern. The employees will be cross-trained to handle Child Protective Services issues as well as welfare benefits.

Bern says the DES will assist any person who seeks help, whether the issue is child abuse, an underage marriage, welfare benefits or assistance to those with developmental disabilities.

Bern says he will work with Utah officials to ensure that welfare recipients aren't getting benefits from both states, which officials suspect is going on in many cases.

Bern says the DES office will be designed mainly to respond to complaints rather than initiate investigations.

"This is a way," he says, "to offer expanded services to the population there."

The goal is to build trust, particularly among abuse victims, that the government can provide beneficial services, Bern says.

Underage girls and women fleeing pending marriages into polygamy, he stresses, will find safety at the DES office.

In the past, girls fleeing Colorado City continually have been returned by state authorities to families attempting to force them into polygamous unions. Bern says this will no longer be the case.

"It would be a violation of our ethics and policy," he says. "I would expect our staff to do a comprehensive assessment of what's going on."

If it appears that returning an underage girl to her family would place her in an "inappropriate or illegal" situation, Bern says, "we would want to be involved not only through CPS but through a coordinated approach with law enforcement."

Mohave County Attorney Bill Ekstrom says his office will lend a sexual assault victims' advocate to the Colorado City facility on a part-time basis.

If that seems like very little, note that Ekstrom won an outstanding leadership award last month at a statewide sexual-assault conference sponsored by Napolitano and Goddard's offices.

Ironically, while Ekstrom has aggressively provided services to sexual-assault victims in southern Mohave County, he has given no assistance to victims from Colorado City.

Ekstrom, who is resigning as county attorney on January 1, is on record as viewing FLDS-controlled Colorado City as an idyllic, family-oriented town. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he has been publicly skeptical that underage girls are being forced into polygamous marriages routinely.

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