Arizona child-welfare officials are working with their counterparts in Utah to decide what to do with children who run away from the twin polygamist communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
Three teenagers from there are in foster care in Phoenix.
This is the first time children fleeing polygamist families have been placed in state protective custody, said Flora Jessop of Phoenix, a former Colorado City resident who left as a teenager in 1986. Typically, the children have been treated like any other teenage runaways and returned home, she said.
But with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the isolated communities of Colorado City and Hildale under scrutiny by law enforcement, child-welfare officials in both states are handling the cases carefully.
Jessop said another half-dozen runaways are in hiding, waiting to see what happens to the three children in state care.
Attorneys general in Arizona and Utah intensified investigations of the FLDS church after the August conviction of Colorado City police Officer Rodney Holm. He was convicted of bigamy and having unlawful sex with a minor after he took a 16-year-old as his "spiritual wife."
Investigators are looking into allegations of sexual abuse, welfare fraud and misuse of funds in a public school run by FLDS members. The church has about 6,000 followers in the two towns 60 miles north of the Grand Canyon.
Discord within the church has grown since Jan. 10, when its prophet, Warren Jeffs, excommunicated 20 of the communities' most influential men and issued an edict stripping them of their wives.
Child-welfare officials were warned that there could be a mass exodus of children, mainly girls, who would run away rather than risk being married to much older men or "reassigned" to other families.
So far, the exodus has not happened.
"We don't really know what to expect," said David Berns, director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which includes Child Protective Services.
Regardless, he said caseworkers are ready. Utah shared its protocol for dealing with similar cases with Arizona caseworkers who have adapted it for their own use.
A 17-year-old girl who ran from Colorado City but was picked up by authorities in Utah was turned over to Arizona CPS on Tuesday.
Arizona also has custody of two 16-year-old Colorado City girls who made their way to Phoenix this month.
Jessop said the girls complain of not being allowed much freedom but their real fear is being forced to marry: "They've seen it happen to their friends."
Jeremy Ortell Kingston, 32, a member of Utah's polygamous Kingston clan, this week was sentenced to a year in jail for taking a 15-year-old cousin as his fourth wife in 1995. Last year, his uncle, David Ortell Kingston, was released from prison after serving four years for committing incest with a 16-year-old niece.
It's a delicate situation for child-welfare officials.
Berns said child-welfare officials can investigate only if they receive a report of neglect or abuse; they cannot go door-to-door looking for problems.
Over a five-year period, Arizona CPS received 26 reports from Colorado City. No children were ever taken from their homes.
Of the 14 reports in 2002 and 2003, 10 alleged neglect and four alleged abuse. Of those cases, two neglect reports and one abuse report were substantiated.
To compare, CPS receives about 35,000 reports statewide a year and removes about 5,000 children.
"As far as we're concerned, polygamy by itself is not a reason to remove a child from a home," said Carol Sisco, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Human Services, which includes the Division of Child and Family Services.
However, she said, "Forcing a child into a marriage could be considered abuse."
Her agency received four reports from Hildale last year. One case involving two victims was substantiated and one child was temporarily removed. The family participated in offered services. Those services could include parenting classes, counseling, anger management and drug rehab.
In the case of runaways, children from polygamist families complain about strict rules at home, not being allowed to wear certain clothes, or having to attend church.
"Those kind of things are regular family disagreements," Sisco said.
In cases where there are no allegations of forced marriage, chronic neglect or abuse, families are referred to counseling. "We can't really do much beyond that. We don't have the authority," Sisco said.
Jessop is recruiting foster parents for the children she still expects will run away.
She said these children would not fare well in group homes. They have little education and lack social skills.
"It's like coming out of a Third World country," Jessop said of the children, who often have been deprived of television, radio, and books except religious literature.