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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Teenagers fleeing polygamous communities would get more legal protection from parents who could expose them to sexual abuse or forced marriage under a proposal approved Friday by a panel of Utah lawmakers.
If teenagers run away from home, anyone they run to must inform their parents within eight hours, said Rep. Walt Brooks said Friday. In some cases, that's allowed adults to take teenagers back to polygamous communities even when they did not want to return.
"We're a family friendly state, so we want them to be with families, but not if the family is going to hurt them," said Brooks, a Republican from St. George, located near a well-known polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona state line.
Some from polygamists expressed concern about the plan. Joe Darger, a Utah man who has three wives, said he supports protecting young kids in perilous circumstances, but is worried about too much focus on a single religious group and possible unintended consequences.
Brooks said the bill would apply to any teenager who could be vulnerable to sexual abuse at home. His proposal now goes to the House floor, and must also be considered by the Senate.
Under the plan, parents would still be informed about runaway children's welfare within the 8-hour window, but that information could come from authorities rather than a home where a child was staying, giving kids "a little bit of a gap," Brooks said.
There would then be a three-day window for the case to go before a judge who would hear out both sides. The teenagers aged 16 and over could begin the process of legal emancipation, but if that isn't a good option, the plan would call for the judge to take into account where child wants to go.
The idea would help girls who arrive on LuAnn Cooper's doorstep in the middle of the night, she said. Cooper said she left the polygamous Kingston Group after being married at age 15, and now teenagers facing their own possible marriages often run away and come to her.
"They reach out to people who have left in hopes we can help them," she said. "They come to my house wanting a refuge wanting an escape."
In at least one case, police ended up arresting a girl and taking her back home, Cooper said.
The Kingston Group said it condemns forced or underage marriages but is against the bill, according to a statement sent to The Salt Lake Tribune. The group said the bill would elevate a child's right to stay with a friend above parental rights, and if it becomes law any parent's suggestion of a future marriage could be considered abuse.
The law could also help teens aged 16 and older who don't have any connection to polygamy, said domestic violence advocate Ronni Adams, who said she was abused as a child and tried to run away from home. The bill is supported by the state child welfare department.
Still, some sounded a note of caution about ensuing that parents in polygamous groups aren't treated unfairly simply because of their beliefs.
"I want to make sure there is a direct and present threat to the minor there," said Shirlee Draper, a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who works with teens leaving the group.
Completely severing all family ties is often unhealthy in the long run, she said.
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