Representative Walt Brooks presented H.B. 343 to lawmakers in the 2018 Utah legislative session with intention to amend the youth and child welfare laws, and succeeded with a unanimous vote in the House (Davidson & Carlisle, 2018). There have been speculation that these amendments singled out a specific religious group, but they do not single out any specific religious or cultural group. Instead, they protect ALL children in Utah, regardless of their religious or cultural group. Brooks was quoted saying, “We’re a family-friendly state, so we want them to be with families, but not if the family is going to hurt them” (Associated Press, 2018).
Prior to the amendments, there were significant gaps in the child welfare laws that left children who were seeking refuge from being pressured into a marriage vulnerable. In past cases, DCFS expressed that their hands were tied because pressuring a child into marriage was not considered a reason for removal; "there needs to be recent physical abuse to justify pulling the child out of their home" they would say. So a decade of physical abuse did not qualify as justification if the child had not been physically abused in the recent months. Sexual abuse warrants the investigation by Child Protective Services, but what about in the case where the abuse is through a marriage? In all cases of child marriage - no matter the religion, culture, or sexual orientation - the child should be protected.
There are a number of children who have sought refuge to escape a marriage, only to be returned home for lack of recent physical abuse - case closed. Some of these children trying to escape a marriage were handcuffed before being returned home, others were taken to the juvenile detention center when they refuse to return home. In fact, Lu Ann Cooper witnessed a child seeking refuge at her home being handcuffed in her doorway, then returned to the home she was running away from (Associated Press, 2018). There are others who corroborate similar stories, whether from a religious group or not. It is very frustrating and heartbreaking to look at these children and tell them "I am sorry the laws do not protect you, we will see you when you are 18, good luck until then" and send them home.
Associated Press (2018) reports, "Some 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, the representative presenting the bill replied saying "the bill would apply to any teenager who could be vulnerable to sexual abuse at home" (Associated Press, 2018). On the flip side, this may actually be an area where Utah laws have been failing and completely excluding a group of children for fear that it would look like they were targeting these groups.
The Kingston polygamous group, utilizing their name Davis County Cooperative Society responded to the new law, as well. "Kent Johnson, a spokesman for the Davis County Cooperative Society (DCCS), also known as the Kingston Group, [aka the Order, aka the Kingston Clan, aka Latter Day Church of Christ, aka LDCC] earlier issued a statement opposing the bill but condemning forced marriage. 'The DCCS encourages all our members to marry within the legal age of consent,' the statement said. 'We encourage any individuals facing an abusive situation to seek help from an impartial source that is interested in the well-being of the victim or potential victim'." (Davidson & Carlisle, 2018). Would he care to elaborate on what "impartial source" means? Is he suggesting they seek help from someone who does not understand the culture, and is unable to utilize a cultural perspective? Does he know that this is an unethical practice of any professional? Is there a reason he says "legal age of consent" instead of "adults"? Because in some states the "legal age of consent" is as early as infancy (Here and Now, 2018). See more on the Kingston groups response in the photo below.
It's unfortunate that this group finds the new law vague on what constitutes sexual abuse, as the amendments were very clear.
The amendments to section 76-9-702.7499 are as follows "(d) subjecting a child to participate in or threatening to subject a child to participate in a sexual relationship, regardless of whether that sexual relationship is part of a legal or cultural marriage." (H.B. 343). So maybe we can set up a training that this group can attend to help make this more clear for them and less vague.
At the end of the day, protecting children requires laws that DCFS and other organizations can utilize in guiding their practice. It would be unethical, and potentially illegal, for a worker in one of these professions to make decisions without having the laws to support them. It is also unethical for Utah to have laws that apply to the children in Utah, but exclude those of religious and cultural backgrounds. Again, we remind you that the constitution supports religious freedoms, but does not uphold religious practices that are abusive or impinging toward another human's rights. Reynolds v. US, 98 U.S. 145 (1878). So marriages among minors may be part of one's religious beliefs, but it can also be a religious practice that impinges on the human rights of the child requiring laws to intervene.
Utah marriage laws still allow parents to consent their child into legal marriages (Utah Courts, 2018). However, a child being pressured, threatened, or forced is now empowered to seek refuge from this marriage. If you are a minor being pressured in any way toward a marriage we suggest that you seek help from whomever you see necessary. Whether it is us, whether it is calling the child abuse hotline yourself, you are now protected by these laws, and you DO NOT have to follow through with a marriage if you are not ready. Marriage is NOT the answer to seek refuge from your home life. There is help, and there is hope for you!
Associated Press. (2018). Utah bill would give teens fleeing polygamy more rights. St. George News. Retrieved from https://www.stgeorgeutah.com/news/archive/2018/02/24/apc-utah-bill-would-give-teens-fleeing-polygamy-more-rights/#.WwYdE0gvyUk
Davidson, L. & Carlisle, N. (2018). Utah House advances bill that would consider it sexual abuse to force young girls into polygamous marriages. Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2018/02/23/in-a-hearing-that-focused-on-polygamy-utah-legislative-committee-approves-a-bill-aimed-at-helping-kids-being-forced-into-marriage/