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Runaway Girl Looking for 'Normal Life' 
Teen says polygamous family set up her marriage to older man 


 


BY DAWN HOUSE,
ASHLEY ESTES
and KEVIN CANTERA



A 15-year-old girl who ran away from her polygamous family saying she wanted to avoid an arranged marriage maintained she just looks for a chance to live a normal life and get an education. "I want to get married when I am ready -- not before," the girl said adamantly, speaking on a video tape. "I want to choose who I marry." The tape was recorded by child-abuse prevention activists who invited the girl to stay with them earlier this week. Activist Les Zitting and the girl met with Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith on Wednesday, when the sheriff decided to return the girl to her father. The father promised he would drive his daughter to eastern Colorado to 
live with an uncle. 
 

Contacted Friday evening by The Salt Lake Tribune, the girl's uncle said she and her father arrived at his eastern Colorado home Thursday night. The girl's parents signed power of attorney over to him, and he will enroll the girl in school, said the uncle, who claims to have had no contact with the 
polygamist community for 28 years. That should please the teen, who says she has not been allowed to attend school since the sixth grade. 
 

"I wish I had [an education] so bad. I miss school," the girl said on the 
tape. The girl had been on vacation in Salt Lake City last week and said on the tape she dreaded returning to her parents' home in Colorado City, Ariz. With the help of a cousin, she contacted Hurricane resident Jay Beswick, an advocate with the child-abuse prevention organization For Kids' Sake, and Zitting, a St. George resident. Zitting wants to start a support group for those wanting to leave The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, based in the border communities of Colorado City and Hildale, Utah. The girl's parents are members of the polygamous group, headed by the ailing Rulon Jeffs. The girl believed she would be forced to marry 45-year-old Warren Jeffs, Rulon's son and acting church president, Zitting said. "If they think that marrying me would keep me away from the outside world, then they would probably force me to do it," the girl said. From Monday until Wednesday, the teen stayed with Beswick and then Zitting, who claims that a Washington County deputy sheriff promised that the girl would not be returned to her parents. Arizona child protection officials will not investigate because the girl's parents have said they will not insist on the marriage, Utah officials said Friday. 
 

"What [Arizona officials are] saying is, they don't see it as an allegation [of abuse] because her father is saying he's not going to force her to marry," said Abel Ortiz, child welfare projects director for the Utah Division of Child and Family Services. Ortiz said the agency was hesitant to act because there was no history of physical or sexual abuse, and the family lives in Arizona. "If she was in Utah, and family was in Utah and made this threat it would have been clearer that we had jurisdiction to detain this child. But the two factors combined made it even more unclear," Ortiz said. On April 30, a new Utah law will go into effect, allowing prosecutors to file criminal charges against those who arrange underage marriages. "We want these forced marriages to be handled like any other abuse case," said Sen. Ron Allen, D-Tooele, who sponsored the bill. "They are not to be taken lightly. I consider it a form of child abuse to marry off a young girl under duress." 
 

Under the law, agreeing or threatening to marry a child under 16 is a third-degree felony. Persons performing such marriages could also face felony charges. Those under 16 must have written authorization from a juvenile court to legally marry. The 15-year-old girl's case "has been very upsetting and inexplicable . . . that they turned her back to the parents," Allen said. " I'm hoping there's a good explanation, because on the surface it seems outright irresponsible." Smith said he did not contact the Utah Department of Human Services or the Children's Justice Center in St. George, which deals with abused children and runaways, because the girl gave no indication that she was being abused in any way. 
 

"She loves her parents, and to their credit, they said they have told their children they don't have to be part of the polygamous lifestyle if they don't want to," said Smith. "Someone on the outside can worry that children are being groomed to be polygamists, but I can't charge into someone's home on that worry any more than I could if someone told me that Mormon parents are grooming their children to someday be LDS missionaries." The sheriff did not interview the girl alone during the three-hour meeting he had with her and her parents. But he said that a deputy sheriff pulled the girl aside, and asked if she was comfortable with the move to Colorado. 


"She indicated to the deputy that she was,'' said Smith. The girl's father, contacted at the uncle's home, declined to comment. The Jeffs could not be reached. On tape, the girl said she hopes her actions would help others free themselves from an unwanted lifestyle. "I want to open a pathway for those who just want to live a normal life," she said.