ST. GEORGE — The attorneys general for Utah and Arizona agreed Thursday that Texas was right in its removal of hundreds of FLDS children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas, more than a month ago.
"There was one person with control over the whole structure and kids were getting hurt. I think they are rapidly coming to the conclusion that it's an inherently dangerous place and there aren't adults there who are sufficiently powerful to stand up to protect the children," Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said during a polygamy town hall meeting attended by more than 600 people in the Dixie Center.
Goddard joined Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, Don Timpson of Centennial Park, a polygamous community across the Utah/Arizona border, and Arizona legislator David Lujan who drafted a child bigamy bill in that state. Deseret News reporter Ben Winslow moderated the two-hour question and answer session.
"No one expected, when we planned this meeting this year, what would happen in Texas. And yet, I ask you tonight, is anybody really surprised?" said Shurtleff, to murmurs of "no" from the audience. "Well, I'm not surprised," he agreed.
Shurtleff said the Texas raid on the FLDS people occurred because "some polygamous leaders have put their people in harm's way."
"Instead of cooperation they've engaged in manipulation, distortion and lies. It's unfortunate so few are giving a bad name to so many. We assure you we do not plan a raid (here) to end polygamy. We are not going to do that. I don't care how many talking heads on TV tell us to 'cowboy up' and be like Texas, we don't believe that's the answer."
And yet, many members in the audience, which included hundreds of people from various polygamous groups, said they were not convinced their lifestyle is safe from prosecution.
"As a defender of the faith, when you say you will not prosecute polygamy because you don't have the resources, I'm afraid one day when you do have the resources you'll come after me," said one man. "I believe what happens in one person's bedroom, as long as they are consenting adults, it's nobody's business."
Shurtleff countered that he is sworn to uphold the law in a nation of laws.
"We didn't make the law," he said. "I can't enforce that law (against polygamy) except as an additional crime with something else like child abuse. You're not protected in that. You stand up and say you're proud to be a polygamist and people look down on you. Well, you made your choice. I'm telling you it is a crime. I don't know how to answer you when you ask, what will we do when we get more resources?"
Both Goddard and Shurtleff said their states stand ready to help Texas if called upon.
"We stand ready to help, and there are a number of ways we can do that," said Goddard. "Right now, Texas is claiming they're an independent republic and we need to establish diplomatic relations with them."
Dozens of hands were raised when Shurtleff asked the audience how many people there had relatives caught up in the Texas raid and whether they would take the children into their homes. Some of the more than 450 FLDS children, teenagers and young adults swept into custody during the Texas raid are Utah and Arizona residents.
A Texas judge ordered the state to continue to hold custody of the children until individual hearings can be held. Those hearings are expected to begin later this month.
In the meantime, the children were moved to foster care facilities around the state. Parents and their attorneys are still trying to establish visitation schedules with individual children, although that has been a cumbersome process.
Much of the evening's discussion centered on the FLDS Church and its jailed leader, Warren Jeffs. A yellow banner hanging in the Dixie Center ballroom advertised a Web site (captivefldschildren.org) created by the FLDS Church following the Texas raid.
Timpson questioned the action taken by Texas, calling it "draconian."
"How did we get to this point tonight, where the state feels it has the responsibility to remove little children from well-meaning parents?" said Timpson, an educator in Colorado City at the local community college.
Timpson said government raids against polygamist families living in Utah and Arizona have historically created even more problems.
"Today we have polygamists keeping to themselves, making their own rules because the bad guys are out there," he said. "The actions of past raids have solidified this concept. It's hard for me to conceive of a person who will trust me if I have a bat in one hand."
Timpson, along with several members of the audience, called for Utah and Arizona to decriminalize polygamy and to "come out and get to know us."
Goddard again said he believed the 1953 Arizona raid on Short Creek, the historical name for Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., was a "severe mistake."
"What followed, unfortunately, was a period of no discussion at all, and that was unequivocally the wrong answer," he said. "I do know one thing about the Texas situation. There were no meetings like this and no Safety Net meetings. I think the reaction by law enforcement in Texas was in part because of a lack of communication."