Activists lobby for stricter laws against polygamy in Arizona
by Matt Bunk
Arizona Capital Times February 1, 2008
Flora Jessop remembers vividly a time long past when her voice didn't matter. She wasn't allowed to be heard. But today, the woman who fled from Warren Jeffs and his polygamist cult as a child in the 1980s speaks much louder than the people who once oppressed her. Jeffs is in jail. The cult has been exposed. State and federal authorities are watching. Jessop, on the other hand, has gone on the offensive.
Flanked by Rep. David Lujan, D-15, and Mohave County Supervisor Bud Johnson, Jessop stood in front of a House committee Jan. 31 to tell lawmakers that Arizona needs new laws to protect the women and children who want to leave places such as the border town of Colorado City, and others like it in Yavapai, Apache and Coconino counties.
And she's helping to expand a children's outreach program to Phoenix in the hopes of allowing more mothers to escape with their children and find a safe home to make a new start. The Los Angeles-based Child Protection Project has been active in Arizona almost since its start in 1996, but Jessop and founder Linda Walker created a wing of the nonprofit in Phoenix last November when they filed articles of incorporation with the state.
The official status means Jessop can continue to run the safe houses as she has for years, but now the group can begin to gather private donations on a local level. Until now, Jessop and Walker have mostly pumped their own money and effort into the project. Jessop said the Child Protection Project so far has provided resources for more than 500 individuals, and she has personally assisted with the long-term rehabilitation of nearly 80 mothers, fathers and children.
The Lujan bill
Lujan met Flora Jessop through his connection with a nonprofit organization that offers legal representation to women trying to leave a polygamous marriage and keep custody of their children. They found common ground in that both believe children are better off not living with a parent who has engaged in child bigamy, the practice of marrying children.
For now, that's the boundary of Lujan's mission. He's not trying to take on polygamous marriages, even though they're outlawed in Arizona. He tried that last year with a bill that eventually failed. The reason, he said, was that it was aimed at both polygamists and child bigamists. So, this year, he's decided to be more specific. H2009 would restrict child bigamists from gaining custody of their children unless the court finds a substantial reason to believe that such a home would not pose a significant risk to the child and states the reasons in writing.
"My bill will help women leave polygamous communities because they will be confident that their former husband will not be able to subject the children to further abuse," Lujan said.
The bill passed through the House Human Services Committee on an 8-0 vote, but now faces a few obstacles - not the least of which is indifference. But Lujan believes the bill has a good chance at passing, now that it's more specific and after hearing some strong words of support from Republicans and Democrats in both houses. "One of the stumbling blocks will be a hearing in the (House Judiciary Committee)," he said. "If the chairman doesn't want a hearing, we'll have to look at other options."
Last year, Lujan's bill ran into that problem after passing unanimously through the same committee that approved it Jan. 31. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Eddie Farnsworth, R-22, did not return phone calls for comment. "This bill has support on both sides of the aisle," Lujan said. "We just need to do what we can to move it forward." 
Flora Jessop is not immune to criticism, but she rarely deviates from her deeply held belief that it's necessary to tell people about the blunt realities of the criminal behavior she experienced as a child growing up in one of Arizona's most notorious communities. She still goes back to visit Colorado City, but now she's viewed by the community as a turncoat, a heretic, an enemy, she said.
She was one of the first women to flee the grasp of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which founded the town in 1913. According to Wikipedia, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) emerged in the 1930s as an offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). The split occurred largely because of the LDS Church's continued renunciation of polygamy. There is no official connection between the FLDS Church and the LDS Church. They are distinct and separate denominations.
Jessop had become disillusioned with the church's teachings that Jeffs was a prophet of God and that women should live a life of complete submission to a husband with more than one family. At 13 years old, she tried to bring charges against a family member for sexual assault but was returned to her home. She fled a forced marriage to a cousin when she was 16 and began to seek ways to end what she called child abuse in polygamous families.
"When I came out of it, I had to be the same way these kids were. I look back and say how did I survive?" Jessop recalled. "It feels like you step into a black hole. Honest to God. Like you're free-falling and screaming at top of your lungs for someone to help you and get someone to understand what you're talking about. And nobody gets what you're trying to say. They think you're lying. This is America, after all. Those things don't happen here."
Almost immediately after resettling in Missouri in the mid-1980s, Jessop began appearing on national television news programs to tell a shocked public of the abuses levied upon women in communities such as the one where she was reared, along with 16 siblings. Jessop now lives in Phoenix with her husband, who she met after leaving Colorado City, and two children.
She recalls forced abortions, sexual abuse, open threats to her safety and eventually the anxiety of leaving behind everything familiar. Even today, she fears for her mother and her younger sister Ruby, neither of whom she has seen in several years. Both women remain in Colorado City, to the best of her knowledge, and their safety is questionable.
"Every time I go close to Colorado City, my sister is spirited away, as well as my mom," Jessop said. "I've had a missing persons report filed on my mom for three or four years now. My brothers and I, we've several times gone in to look for her. We were told if we continue to search, they'd arrest us for harassment." 
As a child, Jessop never thought she'd become an activist. But now she's leading the fight to help victims of abuse create a new life. Many want to leave, but don't, she said, in fear that the family left behind will be punished as a result, or because they don't know how to function in a free society.
"(Sect leaders) use the ignorance of these women regarding the law to promote their lifestyles and ideologies," Jessop said. "Some of the examples are mind-boggling," she continued. "One woman was raped by her stepson and thought she was going to be in trouble with the law because she was an adult and he was a minor. She didn't want to tell the attorney about the incident. She would cry and say she didn't want to go to prison. It took me a year to convince her she was not the guilty party."
The New Wing
Linda Walker's family history is speckled with polygamy in the name of religion. Her great-grandfather was imprisoned in 1902 for practicing polygamy. Years later, Walker's family raised her under the belief that her ancestor was a religious martyr who was persecuted by overzealous authorities.
Walker, a self-described "child of the 60s," believes genetic defects that have impacted members of her distant family were a result of inbreeding, and she has made it her mission to offer a choice of a normal life to those who feel trapped in unbearable situations. "My eyes start to gloss over when I look at some of these genealogies," Walker said. "The proof of what we are saying about the damaging effects of this lifestyle is coming out in the form of a genetic catastrophe."
Specifically, though, she wants to stop the practice of forcing children as young as 14 to marry. And that's the kind of thing that goes on primarily within religious cults scattered across the U.S. Walker founded the Child Protection Project in Los Angeles, with the mission of supporting new laws against the abuse of women and children and providing financial aid to those who want out. But she couldn't get anyone to take her seriously because she was not directly involved with any of the atrocities she described. So, she met up with Jessop, who already had the ear of the media and had figured out how to effectively sell their mission to the public.
"People started paying attention when we started calling attention to the crimes within polygamy, not just the word polygamy," Walker said.
But Jessop is more than a mouthpiece. As executive director of the nonprofit Child Protection Project, she works with victims on a personal level and often goes to court with them during custody battles. One of the goals is to raise enough money to open a transitional shelter for mothers who want out of polygamist or abusive marriages.
"We can't help the children unless we help the mothers," Walker said. "If you are a mother from Colorado City and you leave, you leave your children behind."
Jessop said people who don't know how communities such as Colorado City function often can't grasp how difficult it is to leave. Many people don't know how to make basic decisions for themselves, even to the point at which someone has to choose their clothes for them.
"It's not only the indoctrination, it's the battle these women go through to get custody of the kids. You've got a third-grade education and 6, 7 or 12 kids. Who do you go to?" she posed. "None of the shelters are equipped for that. People come to me and say 'I'll take them into my home.' But when I ask them if they want the mother with eight kids or the one with 12 kids, they look at me with horror."
The group has redoubled its efforts now that Jeffs has been put away. In November, he was found guilty of two counts of rape as an accomplice and sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison.  With the leader gone, more people might see clear to leave Colorado City, Lujan told the House committee. "More people might decide to leave if they have the opportunity, now that Jeffs is in prison," he said.
Jessop said she only wants to help those who come to her for help. "One of the things is that I don't do is go up there and say 'This isn't good, you have to leave,'" she said. "They have to contact me and want out. Everyone I have helped has contacted us. It's interesting because I don't confine my activism to polygamist situations. That was my initial focus. What I've done now is turned it into a much bigger issue concerning all abuse."
Gaps in the system
Walker said helpful people in positions of authority, such as Lujan, are few and far between. She railed against the state's lawmakers for turning a blind eye toward polygamy and the other crimes that can occur as a result of inclusive, sectarian societies that hold strong to a fundamentalist and repressive belief system. She said there is no true refuge under the court system or any other governmental body and is trying to fill that gap with the Child Protection Project.
"The one thing we have noticed is that for some reason the judges, prosecutors and everyone involved have not understood that they have to get these kids out of there," Walker said. "They've been returning these children to abusive environments for years and years and years. It's almost like lawmakers are hands-off on polygamy and child bigamy. There need to be new laws enacted in Arizona to protect children."
"Often it seems like nobody is willing to help," Jessop said. The police in Colorado City have lost credibility with other law enforcement agencies, and one police chief in the border town was removed from his post by Utah authorities after accusations that he failed to report child abuse. "It took a long time for the authorities to understand that the police in Colorado City are not the police," Jessop said. "They're the gestapo." The Colorado City police department did not return phone calls for comment.
Walker and Jessop believe that more mothers who want to leave the community will do so if it's clear in the law that they will be able to keep their children. Both women tell gut-wrenching stories about young girls who run away from abuse only to be returned home by authorities. "It's discouraging to see the courts award custody to polygamous fathers - it's child abuse. It's a felony under Arizona law," Lujan said.
Sometimes, women who seek Jessop's help will return to the life they once lived because they can't function in the real world and feel as though they never will be able to. One woman took her children back to Colorado City after three years with Jessop, only to find out that her husband was making efforts to trade her 16-year-old daughter for another wife. "They get out of one situation and sometimes go back into another situation. I tell everyone I won't make the choice for you, but I'll give you options."
Jessop said she has been harassed in recent years at her Phoenix home by agents of the polygamist sect. They've tried to intimidate her with guns and by causing damage at safe houses where the women stay, she said. But she's not easily intimidated. "I just bring out bigger guns," she said. "I look at it like they've ruled through fear and that's how they kept people trapped for so long. I don't fear for me. I fear for the people I'm trying to help. They're the ones at risk. Being so high profile allows me and my family protection. If something happens to me, there will be questions."
Updates Since 20081.
DEFINITION OF CHILD BIGAMY UNDER ARIZONA LAW2. Former child bride, 6 kids escape Az polygamist sect
By Cronkite News Service
State law defines child bigamy as committed by a person who does one of the following:
_ Has a spouse and marries a child;
_ Forces or helps force the marriage of a child to someone who already has a spouse;
_ Forces or helps force a child to marry if the child already has a spouse;
_ Marries a child who already has a spouse;
_ Transports or helps transport a child to promote marriage between a child and someone who already has a spouse;
_ Transports or helps transport a child who already has a spouse to promote marriage between the child and another person.
Source: Arizona Revised Statutes, Section 13-3609
3. Jeffs sentenced