Child Protection in an Authoritarian Community

Cultic Studies Review, 4(3), 2005, 233-267

Child Protection in an Authoritarian Community: Culture Clash and Systemic Weakness

Livia Bardin, MSW

Exploring allegations that Child Protective Services (CPS) in Utah and Arizona avoid interventions in polygamous Mormon communities (PMCs), the author discovered unusual obstructions to child protective work in this isolated, authoritarian culture. PMC members fear and shun an “evil” outside world. Threatened with eternal damnation for disobedience, they rank their leaders’ commands above secular law. CPS officials appeared ill-informed about key elements of PMC culture. Concerns about accusations of religious bias and fear of a PMC’s political power may also hamper CPS investigations. Similar patterns, arising not from ideology, but from group structure and dynamics, are likely to occur in thousands of similarly structured, though ideologically diverse, groups that involve more than one million children in the United States today.

Key words: child welfare, authoritarian groups, cultural competence, cults

Responsibility for the protection of children in the United States resides with the individual states. Each state, although it complies with federal guidelines, designs and operates its own Child Protective Service (CPS) to act upon reports of neglect and abuse of children. The investigation described here began in response to allegations that CPS in Utah and Arizona deliberately avoid intervening in polygamous Mormon communities (PMCs). As the work proceeded, impediments to CPS investigations emerged that appeared to arise more from group structure and dynamics than from group ideology. These impediments therefore seem applicable not just to these groups, but to many similarly structured, isolated, authoritarian groups of widely varying ideologies.

Child-welfare theorists and workers alike have long agreed that providing effective services requires understanding of the client’s environment (Korbin, 2002). Numerous general discussions about the importance of cultural sensitivity, such as those by Green (1982), Lieberman (1990), and Cohen, Deblinger, Mannarino, and de Arellano (2001) are available. Researchers have reported on cultural issues in ethnic groups, such as Hawaiian Americans (Dubanoski, 1981), Japanese and Samoan Americans (Dubanoski and Snyder, 1980), Native Americans (Weaver, 1999), and African Americans (Logan, Freeman, & McRoy, 1990). Researchers have also explored the cultural implications of economic status and neighborhood (Korbin, Coulton, Chard, Platt-Houston, and Su, 1998; Garbarino and Kostelny, 1992). No research is available on cultural or environmental factors involved in work with families in isolated, authoritarian groups. Although obviously one can draw no sweeping conclusions from a single exploratory study, the findings indicate a need for the child-welfare community to learn about the unusual circumstances it might encounter in such communities.

Isolated, authoritarian, religious or philosophical groups embrace a broad variety of ideologies—religious, political, and psychological—that to mainstream culture might appear eccentric, extreme, or otherwise exotic. Despite their ideological variety, such groups tend to share common structure and dynamics. Carbo and Gartner (1994), in their discussion of sexual misconduct and abuse in religious communities, compare the dysfunctional dynamics in some religious communities to those of incestuous families: The communities are isolated and disengaged from the outside world, with all questions—personal and political, as well as religious—referred to the leaders. The boundaries between insider and outsider are overly rigid, which leads members to bond together against perceived threats from outsiders. Internal boundaries are loose, with many dual and ambiguous relationships, which creates an excessive mutual dependency that might bring members to feel they cannot function outside the group. Cartwright and Kent (1992) argue that, like families, alternative religious groups “frequently enmesh their members in constraining social environments that facilitate the occurrence of sustained and systematic abuse.” They point out that such groups display traits that in families are conducive to violence: patriarchal leaders, intense involvement, closed systems, and extreme dependency on the leader.

These groups constitute a significant component of our population. Langone (2003) estimates conservatively that about 4,400 such groups are operating in the United States today. Estimated membership is about 2% of the population, or 5,000,000 people. Assuming that the proportion of children in such groups is comparable to that of the general population, approximately 1,250,000 children are growing up in isolated, authoritarian groups.

Children in these groups appear to be vulnerable because of the dynamics of the groups and, in some cases, their ideology. Students of religion have investigated how religious tenets, especially refusal of medical treatment and exorcism, might directly harm children. Bottoms, Shaver, Goodman, and Qin (1995) looked at harm caused by medical neglect arising from faith-healing beliefs and “ridding of evil.” Marshall (2002) reported on a case in which religion-sanctioned abuse intended to exorcise evil resulted in a child’s death. Asser and Swan (1998) studied child fatalities caused by religion-motivated medical neglect. They found that, of 172 child fatalities in families in which parents withheld medical care because of reliance on religious rituals, 140 children died from conditions for which survival rates with medical care were greater than 90%; and that an additional 18 children died from conditions with expected survival rates greater than 50%.

The power of a leader and dependency of his followers might also jeopardize children. Bottoms, Shaver, et al. (1995) have addressed abuse of children by clergy. Reviewing historical cases of sexual abuse of children in alternative religions, Kent (2000) observed that the adherents’ trust in the hierarchy and the leaders’ positions as God’s representatives whose purity allows them to do anything they like probably underlie these behaviors. Capps (1992) and Ellison (1996) summarize ways in which religion can lead to child abuse; these methods range from the use of biblical quotations to justify beatings to dismissal by other adults of children’s allegations of clergymen’s misconduct.

From a personal perspective, Stein (1997) and Rochford with Heinlein (2001) offer moving accounts of mothers who, as members of isolated, authoritarian groups, both religious and nonreligious, subdued their instincts and assented to leaders’ mistreatment or even removal of their children.

Siskind (2001) found that ex-members who grew up in five ideologically varied totalistic groups reported severe mental and emotional abuse. Ex-members of four of the five groups complained of experiencing sexual abuse as children. Siskind (2001:420) also cites a 1997 study by Martin Katchen, who reported “an alarmingly high rate of dissociative disorders among children raised in totalistic cults.” Child-abuse cases severe enough to attract media attention were the subject of 28 out of 100 news items reprinted in a 2003 issue of the Cultic Studies Review (2003). Six of the cases were deaths.


Background information about fundamentalist, polygamous offshoots of the Mormon religion is widely available in histories, popular accounts, and newspaper reports. Sermons and other documents of PMC leaders, as well as personal narratives, supplied information about specific practices of polygamous groups. Because some sources took strong positions for or against the beliefs and/or practices of polygamous Mormons, I looked for consistency in reports from differing sources to confirm their accuracy.

To obtain information about the interactions of CPS with children in PMCs, I developed a structured survey, “Personal Experience of Childhood Abuse and Neglect” (PECAN). A total of 17 respondents participated either in person or by telephone. After completing the survey, the respondents answered follow-up questions that arose from their responses to survey questions. A snowball sample was used (each respondent was asked to suggest others who might be willing to participate). The survey and follow-up interviews addressed only information about respondents’ personal experience; they excluded respondents’ reports about others. This survey elicited 11 reports of CPS interventions in PMC communities.

Unstructured interviews with 7 present and former child-protective workers and officials in Utah and Arizona complemented and supplemented those of the former members and provided professional perspectives on working with PMCs.

To assess the performance of CPS in the cases reported, I first ascertained whether those actions met CPS’ own requirements as set forth in the Utah CPS manual (posted on the Internet, Utah Division of Family and Child Services, 2001), or conformed with the Utah and Arizona policies as listed in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (2003b) National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts: Review of State CPS Policy. Although the alleged abuses took place in both Utah and Arizona, the Arizona manual was not available in full. In view of the federal regulations that govern in all states, it is reasonable to assume that both states have similar standards and procedures. I did not check whether the laws were different at the time the report was made (the oldest reporting experience dates from 1984).

It was also important to assess whether the deficiencies noted were commonplace in child welfare work, and therefore not related to PMCs. Two recent studies, the National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts: Findings on Local CPS Practices (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, 2003a) and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s The Unsolved Challenge of System Reform: The Quality of Frontline Human Services Workers (2003), plus statistics from the Child Welfare League of America, provided information on this topic.

Culture of PMCs

Polygamy was an early premise of Mormon theology and was a mainstream Mormon practice in the nineteenth century. Though outlawed in 1890, the practice has continued in a number of communities whose members regard themselves as the true followers of the Mormon heritage. Fundamentalist Mormons believe that polygamous marriage is an essential requirement for admission to Heaven (Jeffs, 1997). Most polygamous Mormons live in Utah, but there are communities in Arizona, Montana, Idaho, California, Mexico, Canada, and possibly other states, as well. The total population of polygamous Mormons might number anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000. (Krakauer, 2003; Wright, 2002).

PMCs exist in a curious relationship with the law. Although illegal, polygamy is rarely prosecuted and is routinely acknowledged in the public life of Utah and parts of Arizona. Newspaper headlines such as “Member of Polygamous Church Claims It Stole $1.5 Million” (Cantera & Vigh, 2002) and “Sister Widows: Wives of Dead Polygamists Rebuild Their Lives” (House, 2002) appear regularly.

Some PMCs are near, or even in, Salt Lake City. Others are geographically isolated. Some communities are quite small, consisting of one self-appointed male “prophet,” his wives, and his children. Others number in the thousands. The communities have a hierarchical structure, with one leader dominating—sometimes with the assistance of a small inner circle —by virtue of “God’s command.” Because the leader claims a direct connection with God, members of the communities accept his rulings as God’s commands, to be unquestioningly obeyed. Disobedience condemns a believer to Hell. To leave—the ultimate disobedience—is certainly to consign oneself to Hell. (See, for instance, Jeffs, 1997, pp. 1417.)

One large community, the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS), is centered in Hildale-Colorado City, a town located on both sides of the Utah-Arizona border. This group consists of about 5,000 to 10,000 people. Their leader, Warren Jeffs, exercises spiritual, psychological, economic, and political control of Hildale-Colorado City. Residents wear distinctive clothes; follow Jeffs’ dictates about work, education, and marriage; and obey God’s word as received by Jeffs. Men must have his permission to marry and his blessing on their choice of partner (which he sometimes dictates). Because plural marriage is essential for salvation, the leader’s control of marriage is a powerful tool to induce compliance. The FLDS leadership, through a corporation, also owns most of the land and most of the businesses in the two towns. FLDS teachers staff the public school, and FLDS members constitute the local police (Bistline, 1998). Children are said to be discouraged from continuing their education past the eighth grade. Not all families are polygamous, but many men, especially the leaders, have multiple wives—as many as 60, according to some reports (Bateman, 2000).

PMCs also flourish in urban settings. One participant in this study had been one of eight wives in a family living in Salt Lake City. She described a life of frequent moves, intrigue, and dissension among wives living in different houses, and a husbandleader who moved erratically from household to household. In that group, each wife was responsible both for raising her children and for financially supporting herself and her children.

Personal Experiences of Children in PMCs

The “Personal Experience of Childhood Abuse and Neglect” (PECAN) survey, developed specifically for this project, was not tested prior to use in the field. The purpose of the PECAN survey was (1) to elicit information about individuals’ experiences of abuse or neglect as children in isolated, authoritarian groups and (2) to explore whether reporting of such experiences resulted in outcomes that indicate deliberate avoidance by CPS. The PECAN survey in no way measures the incidence or prevalence of abuse and neglect in such groups. The large number of participants who reported experiences of abuse and neglect simply might indicate that people who have strongly negative experiences are more likely to leave. The sample was appropriate for exploring what, if anything, happened following the negative experiences.

The three-page survey instrument includes a section for demographic information; a section about the respondents’ personal experiences of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect; a section about the respondents’ experience of reporting or not reporting the abuse or neglect; and two open-ended questions. The findings present information only about the respondents’ personal history. Respondents, all former members who have rejected polygamous life, reported a variety of specific, childhood experiences, ranging from no abuse to severe, prolonged abuse. Reports and comments consistently depicted a culture whose views on abuse and neglect differ widely from the mainstream.

A total of 17 respondents took the survey, of whom 3 turned out not to have lived in PMCs as children. Eliminating this group left a total of 14 qualified respondents. Of the qualified respondents, 5 spent their childhoods in Hildale-Colorado City, 4 spent some of the their childhoods in Hildale-Colorado City and some elsewhere, and 5 grew up in other PMCs. Respondents were not paid. Before administering the survey, I read respondents a written statement describing the topics to be covered and explaining how the information would be used. I informed them of their right to terminate the process at any time. The statement also assured them that their individual information would be kept confidential, although they could be quoted without attribution. I also offered respondents a free telephone consultation should they need help dealing with emotions evoked in the survey process.

Respondents ranged in age from 19 years to 68 years. The average age was 40 years, the median age 42 years. Ten respondents were female and 4 were male. (See Appendix, Table A1, for details.) Three respondents grew up in monogamous families, despite affiliation with a polygamous community. Some polygamous families had more than one mother in the home while in other cases wives lived in different houses. The largest number of mothers reported living in one home was 13. Only 3 respondents reported families of fewer than 10 siblings, while 7 (50%) came from families of 26 or more siblings. Ten respondents (71%) lived in the PMC community for 16 years or more. Nine respondents (64%) left in their teens or early twenties. Two respondents, though no longer believers, still lived in a PMC.

Twelve respondents (86%) reported experiences of physical abuse as children under the age of 16. (See Appendix, Tables A2 and A3 for details.) Ten respondents (71%), reported sexual abuse. Eleven respondents (79%) reported neglect. Of the 12 who reported physical abuse, 6 experienced multiple abuses, including being kicked, whipped, beaten, shaken, and shoved off balance or knocked down. Seven of the 12 reported being abused more often than once a month and 3 reported daily abuse. Seven of the 10 who reported sexual abuse said the abuse continued for 5 years or more. Eight of the 11 who reported neglect said the neglect started when they were between 5 years and 9 years old and continued for 10 years or more.

The survey asked respondents how they thought the community viewed the abusive behaviors listed. With regard to physical abuse, 13 respondents (93%) stated that the community generally deems those behaviors “appropriate” or “acceptable,” while One “did not know.” (This finding should not be taken to indicate that polygamists generally abuse their children. One respondent stated that it was through her classmates, fellow-members of the PMC, that she learned that what was happening at home was wrong.) Despite the high incidence of sexual abuse they reported, 13 respondents (93%) stated either that they did not know how the community viewed it or thought the community viewed it as inappropriate. Several mentioned that such things were not talked about. Nine respondents (64%) thought the items listed as “neglect” were viewed as acceptable or appropriate in PMCs. Five respondents did not know how the community viewed the neglectful practices. None of the respondents thought the community viewed them as inappropriate.

The survey then asked the respondents to describe what, if anything, they or others did about the abuse and neglect. Of the 12 respondents who were abused or neglected, 6 did not report their experiences to any adult. All nonreporters listed more than one reason for their decision. Five of the 6 thought both that reporting would make things worse and that it might hurt or embarrass their family or others. Table 2 summarizes the nonreporters’ reasoning. Two respondents stated that another person knew about, but did not report, it. One respondent, who lived in and around Salt Lake City as a child, said, “If my teachers showed any suspicion, I was pulled out of that school and sent to another place to go to a different school.”

One respondent who did not report stated, “My mother would have protected me. She was sick a lot.”

Outcomes for the 6 respondents whose abuse was reported were mostly negative. Because some respondents reported abuse on more than one occasion and others reported on their behalf, the survey yielded a total of 11 reports. On four occasions, respondents reported no change, and on five occasions, they reported a change for the worse. Only 2 respondents reported an improvement as a result of the report.

In most cases, the children who reported abuse spoke to female family members. Two children told their teachers, who were PMC members. One mother reported the abuse to local police, also PMC members. Neither teachers nor local police contacted CPS as required by the state. Respondents who reported to group members stated that their condition worsened following the reports. The comments of some respondents show how fear of the outside world, deference to the sanctity of group leaders, and the dual roles of community officials hampered effective protection (Reports were made in both Arizona and Utah. To protect respondents’ identities, I have not cited the state involved.):

Respondent #1 stated that she reported to her teacher, a PMC member, who went to the respondent’s grandmother. She said her father then told her it was “out of the question to go to the police. They would put us all in jail and take our mothers and fathers away. If I talked to the police I would be bringing evil into our lives.”

Respondent #5 said that when she and her mother reported the physical abuse to the local police in a PMC, they told the mother, “If you were an obedient wife, you would have obedient children.” The police took no further action.

Respondent #8 reported that she told her grandmother about physical abuse. The grandmother was ill but said she planned to call authorities. The grandmother died shortly thereafter without making the call. The respondent said that her father, the abuser, told her (she was then 10 years old) that he had tampered with the grandmother’s medication so she would die before she could report.

Respondent #13 recalled that she reported physical abuse to her mother, who said she could do nothing, and to her stepmother, who told her to pray about it. The same respondent said she reported sexual abuse to her aunt, who accused her of lying because the respondent’s father, the abuser, was “a man of God.” This respondent also stated that the leader of the community knew through family connections that her father was molesting children but took no action.

In both Arizona and Utah, the law requires teachers and law enforcement officials to report suspected child abuse to CPS. Utah is 1 of 14 states in which everyone is mandated to report. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003a, Table 3a). Yet loyalty to the group and its beliefs in these cases overrode both maternal responsibility and the legal obligations of PMC members. This loyalty demolished the first line of support for the abused children.

CPS Met Its Obligations (Two Cases)

Case 1: A respondent who is now an anti-polygamy activist reported that she received a phone call from a teen-aged girl in a PMC, who told the activist that her father was molesting her. The activist contacted CPS. A CPS worker set up a three-way call, so that he and the activist could both talk to the girl. The case went nowhere because it turned out the girl had given a false name, and CPS could not investigate further.

Case 2: In 2001, a former polygamous wife, then living in a PMC, reported to CPS when she learned that a 13-year-old stepson had molested her daughter. The respondent stated that she drove everyone weekly, for 6 months, 40 miles to a town where CPS provided counseling for everyone, including parenting training and anger management for herself. She said services were “totally appropriate and sufficient.”

CPS Partly Met Its Obligations (Four Cases)

Cases 3 and 4 are those in which reports of abuse produced some improvement in the respondents’ situation. In both cases, children (in different geographic areas) were briefly removed from the homes, and subsequent changes in their living arrangements eventually resulted in safer homes. However, in neither case did CPS interview or monitor the children while they were in the state’s care. One respondent volunteered that “It would have been nice if, while we were at the safe house, someone came and asked how we were doing. No one asked the other kids what was going on.” The other stated that during the 2 weeks he stayed in a safe house he was not allowed to make or receive phone calls or visits, did not go to school, and did not talk to anyone except the “house parents” and “two other kids” who were also in the home.

The Utah Child Protective Services manual states that if a child has been determined to be at risk, each child in the same home having communications skills shall be personally interviewed or observed. [Utah Division of Family & Child Services. (2001), 204.3C (2)]

Case 5 highlights the police role in child-protection activities. A respondent living outside the community reported that in April 2001, she learned that her 14-year-old sister in a rural PMC had married a 21-year-old stepbrother. Less than a month after the marriage, the 14-year-old went to a brother’s house. She told her sister on the phone, “I didn’t want to get married,” and “I don’t want to go back.” Within days, she was tricked into leaving her brother’s care and taken away. The older sister contacted CPS. CPS referred the case to the county sheriff, who took no action for 4 days. When the older sister implored a deputy sheriff to take action, the deputy told her, “I’ve got to call X (a PMC leader) first.” When sheriff’s deputies went to interview the 14-year-old, they were told she was “away.” A month later, a girl who stated that she was the girl in question came to the county seat and spoke with a CPS worker, who reported that the girl stated she was fine. Because Utah CPS policy allows a child being interviewed in a sexual-abuse case to have a “friend” present during the interview, an adult who had come with the girl was present throughout. The CPS worker told the sister that he was not certain who the adult was. The CPS worker then closed the case.

The Utah CPS manual states that a child between the ages of 14 years and 16 years cannot legally consent to sexual intercourse (or certain other sexual acts) with a person 7 years or more older than the child (Utah Division of Family and Child Services, 2001). Utah requires law enforcement to investigate cases of suspected serious abuse and/or criminal activity, and the Utah CPS Manual stipulates that if there are allegations of recent sexual abuse, a medical examination is required within 72 hours (Utah Division of Family and Child Services, 2001, 202.9c3). Although CPS did not have front-line responsibility in this case, it appears negligent in failing to ensure an appropriate investigation.

Case 6 shows CPS as dilatory in responding. Starting in February 2003, a respondent stated, she made repeated phone calls to CPS about a 15-year-old girl who appeared to be married as the sixth wife of a 42-year-old man. The respondent had telephone conversations with the worker assigned to the case, who said that she needed to “build trust” within the family before she acted on the charges. When the worker eventually went, by appointment, to interview the girl, she was told that the girl had, that very day (after a 3-year lapse), gone back to school. The worker did not pursue the interview because, she told the respondent, she didn’t want to disrupt the girl’s first day back in school. Coming for a rescheduled meeting a few days later, the worker found no one home, though she waited several hours. As CPS proceeded toward its next move, in April, the family left—probably, according to the respondent, on its way to Mexico.

In both Utah and Arizona, the timeframe for completing an investigation, including required contact with the child, is 2 weeks to 4 weeks (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2003b), Tables 4-J and 4-K). This worker did not complete the investigation in a timely manner.

CPS Appears Not to Have Met Its Obligations (Four Cases)

Case 7, in 1989, involved a sexually abusing father who had become a public-school employee. Two of his daughters, who had both been abused, reported their histories to CPS out of concern for other children who might now be at risk. When they called some time later to inquire, they were told there was no record of the report.

In cases 8 and 9, in 1995 and 1997, a respondent who repeatedly called to report suspected underage marriages was told there was no record of any reports.

Case 10 involved a 1991 report to CPS by a former member of a metropolitan-area PMC that a member of that group was molesting his granddaughter. The respondent provided CPS with the name and address of an older granddaughter who had also been molested by the grandfather. She said that while CPS expressed concern about the younger child, they did not react at all to the information that the older child, now 15, was married as the third wife of a 56-year-old man. She said their reaction was, “We will videotape the interview so she does not have to testify in court. If she wants, her husband can sit with her and hold her hand while she tells us about it.” (The participant later learned that the 15-year-old was known to CPS and was a fugitive from state custody.)

The state where this report was made forbids sexual relations between those aged 14 years to 16 years with anyone more than 7 years older. In light of this law, the reaction of CPS in case 10 seems clearly inappropriate.

CPS Appears to Have Violated the Law (One Case)

Case 11: A survey respondent became involved with CPS in 1984, when she was 14 years old and lived in a PMC. After a court proceeding, she was placed in the custody of her paternal uncle, a prominent PMC leader. She reports that the uncle locked her in a windowless room, kept her isolated from her siblings and mother, and frequently beat her. Every week, she recalls, he drove her to visit a CPS worker in the county seat, to whom she at first, and after assurances that their conversations were confidential, reported the beatings. She recalled that the worker was sympathetic and told her he would do everything he could to help her. However, she later discovered that the worker was taping their conversations and giving the tapes to her abusive uncle.

Why would a worker return a child week after week to a placement in which she had reported being abused, without, apparently, so much as an investigation? Why would the worker violate the child’s confidence? The respondent who reported this experience attributed it to fear of the PMC. This interpretation was supported by the report of another respondent, an adult at the time of these events, who had left the group several years previously and who lived in the county seat. She stated that the same worker had called and told her that he had given her phone number to the child with instructions to memorize her number and then destroy the paper it was written on.

Was CPS Performance Discriminatory?

Available information suggests several reasons why CPS did not meet its own standards in these cases: (a) heavy caseloads; (b) exceptionally difficult nature of the cases; (c) cultural misconceptions; (d) lack of support from law enforcement agencies: and (e) the public image and political power of PMCs.

Heavy Caseloads

Workload is a common problem for child-protective workers. The National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reforms: Findings on Local CPS Practices (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003a. p. 2-9) reports that 69% of CPS agencies perceived their workloads as excessive for one or more functions. Light (2003), in a random sample survey of 1,213 human-services workers, found that 70% felt they were overworked. The Annie E. Casey Foundation (2003, p. 17) found that the caseload for child-welfare workers is, on average, double the Child Welfare League of America's standard.

Utah workers appear to be among those who are overloaded. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Child Maltreatment 2001 report, for the 20 states reporting, in 2001 the average response time between receiving a report and beginning an investigation was 50 hours. For Utah that response time was 129 hours. According to HHS (2001), the average number of investigations per worker was 69 a year. Utah workers performed an average of 155 investigations each in 2001. Average response time for Arizona was 65 hours, slightly above the national average. While Arizona reported a below-average load of 49 investigations per worker, the HHS calculations did not consider other activities of workers who performed more than one function, a strong probability for workers in rural areas. Rural workers also spend a great deal of time traveling. One supervisor in a rural area said that although her investigator’s caseload ranges from 10 cases to 15 cases, appropriate under the guidelines, the time he must spend traveling makes that a very full caseload (C. Quasula, personal communication, September 12, 2003).

Exceptionally Difficult Nature of the Cases

Workers commented on the levels of secrecy and fear of the “outside” in PMC cases. CPS worker Ruth Huth stated that “they call us (CPS) the enemy.” She said that the police in a PMC in her area are secretive and deny there is anything wrong in the community. She said that children do not give information because they do not trust the workers. She also spoke of feeling threatened while working on a case of shaken baby syndrome. She said, “It was a heated case. They brought … a prominent member (of the PMC hierarchy) to sit through every interview. It was intimidating.” (personal communication, April 8, 2003).

CPS worker “Elaine DeLauri” (a pseudonym), described her experience in a café in a PMC town. When she went in, just one other person was there. When she sat down, the man stared at her, and then made a phone call. Other men started coming into the café. Several of them placed phone calls. “Before long,” she recalls, “there were 14 men just sitting … and staring at me—and I wasn’t even there on business; I was just passing through! It was intimidating.” (personal communication, Sept. 10, 2003)

Martin Rothman, another worker, described his surprise when he realized why someone was always sitting in a car at the entrances of both of the two roads into a large PMC community: “They’re guards. They know when you’re coming and when you leave.” (personal communication, Sept. 17, 2003)

CPS worker Gene Ashdown, noting that his agency has successfully placed children from PMCs in foster homes, described a climate of “paranoia and distrust.” He said, “They [PMCs] are very secretive…. I’d get a phone call, kid wants to leave. “Is it a boy or a girl?” “I can’t tell you.” … “Sometimes I made arrangements (with a foster family) to take a child. Other times the kid didn’t show up, and they would say, “[The child] went over to [a neighboring state].” (personal communication, March 21, 2003)

“Guards” aside, it’s hard to be inconspicuous when you’re approaching an isolated community on a country road. Ashdown observed that “Those communities are 50 to 60 miles from (the county seat) … they can see you from a long way off. They know you….” (personal communication, March 21, 2003). It’s easy for people who have 10 minutes’ or 15 minutes’ notice to disappear.

In PMC cases, the requirement to interview all children in the family adds a heavy burden. Rothman spoke of a family with 28 children to interview (personal communication, Sept. 17, 2003), “DeLauri” of a family of 42 children (personal communication, Sept. 10, 2003). And privacy for interviews is a challenge when there are so many people in a single house (C. Quasula, personal communication, Sept. 12, 2003).

Establishing rapport and gaining trust in such closed, secretive communities is extremely difficult. “DeLauri” repeatedly used the term “brainwashed” in describing her attempts to get information from the children. She said that all 42 children in the family referred to above had the “same mentality,” which she considered impossible in a free environment (personal communication, Sept. 10, 2003). Rothman appeared to be more successful in getting PMC members to cooperate. He reported that he recruited professionals within the PMCs to provide needed counseling and parenting training, and that families readily accepted this help. He agreed that he might have owed part of his success simply to being a male in this male-supremacist community, and to an openly expressed broadmindedness toward polygamy. (personal communication, Sept. 17, 2003)

Cultural Misconceptions

Cultural misunderstandings compound the difficulties. Speaking for the Utah Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS), Constituent Services Representative Duane Betournay (personal communication, March 20, 2003) explained that his agency uses a “culturally sensitive” approach to working with PMCs. He likened PMCs to communities of illegal immigrants, for whom “the biggest thing is convincing them that contact with us is not an [Immigration and Naturalization Services] action.” He pointed out that polygamous Mormons are fearful of law enforcement and said that DCFS must establish relationships and form community partnerships to overcome the fear and distrust.

This perspective ignores the function of fear in PMC culture. While the premise about PMCs’ fear of the outside world is correct, it does not take into account how PMC leaders exploit that fear. DCFS appears not to know that PMC groups may severely punish their members for unauthorized outside contact. DCFS may not know that members of some groups are forbidden to have television sets (Krakauer, 2003, p. 11). DCFS may not know, or may discount, stories widespread within PMC groups of telephones tapped, mail intercepted, and armed adherents ordering strangers to leave (Jessop, 1987; Jessop, personal communication, June 2, 2003). PMC members’ fear of internal consequences if they speak up might deter cooperation as much as their fear of the outside world. The presence of the official in the CPS investigation described above may have been more intimidating to the PMC members than to the worker. Nor are children likely to disclose information to outsiders if they fear being returned to a community in which such cooperation is deemed evil.

The Utah DCFS understanding of PMC culture would also be more accurate if the organization realized that the only acceptable “relationship” in an authoritarian community is that of obedience to the leaders. One respondent referred to the “law of one over another” and explained it to mean, “You are supposed to please the one over you.” PMC members see an official who has a “relationship” with their leader as the leader’s ally, who will comply with his orders. The former PMC member entreating the deputy sheriff to search for her sister understood his response to mean he had to get the PMC leader’s permission first.

In contending that “polygamists don’t want to see abuse and neglect” (Duane Betournay, personal communication, March 20, 2003), DCFS demonstrates ignorance of the cultural abyss between mainstream and PMC culture as to what constitutes abuse and neglect. Respondents who grew up in PMCs indicated that their communities viewed the physical abuse and neglect they were subjected to as “appropriate” or “acceptable.” As for sexual abuse, how does DCFS reconcile its perception with ongoing reports of marriages of girls too young under Utah law to engage in sexual intimacy with older men?

The cultural gap also applies to children born and raised in PMCs. These children might be uncooperative because they accept PMC beliefs. Teenage girls brought up in PMCs might be happy to become “sister wives” to much older men, sincerely believing that this is the best thing that they could do with their lives. One respondent reported a struggle with her teen-aged daughter who wanted to enter such a marriage, though the mother was anxious for her to finish high school and go to college. The girl, supported by the community, married. The mother, at the time of the survey, was contesting the efforts of the PMC leaders to evict her from her home as a punishment for her opposition.

The CPS workers I spoke with demonstrated varying understanding of PMC culture. All spoke of the secrecy and lack of cooperation from local authorities. Only “De Lauri,” (personal communication, Sept 10, 2003) noted the fear of internal authority. She stated that the men threaten the children to get the wives to comply. She also noted the control of information. She had attempted to get one wife to read the “Holy Scriptures.” The wife responded that the prophet forbade this, and people would get hurt if they did it. “DeLauri” seemed unaware that to challenge a client’s religious beliefs is unethical, and it is counterproductive to suggest to a client that she might be “brainwashed.”

Rothman (personal communication, Sept. 17, 2003) knew about internal splits among the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints. Rothman’s estimates about abuse in PMCs corresponded with the information elicited from survey respondents, but he was not aware of neglect. He did observe that if one considered leaving children in the care of those unable to supervise them as neglect, this was a problem.

Lack of Support from Law Enforcement Agencies

The two cases in this study that had positive outcomes both involved reports to “outside” police. But in other cases, law enforcement was both dilatory and inadequate. In the alleged kidnapping case, the sheriff postponed action for 4 days, although the child was reported taken against her will. In a different case (case 6), a county sheriff ordered deputies to leave a house in which a man wanted on five felony charges of sexual activity with minors was staying, claiming the wanted man would turn himself in the next day. By the next morning, the house was empty. All the residents had fled (Dougherty, 2003; Welling, 2003). In yet another case, the police did not even report to CPS a case in which a PMC member was accused of molesting five of his daughters and pleaded guilty to one count of child sexual abuse. (M. Rothman, personal communication, Sept. 17, 2003)

A lackadaisical attitude by law enforcement toward child-abuse cases might not be specific to PMCs. A former director of a child-advocacy center in rural Utah said that people wanting to report suspected child abuse could call any of four agencies: the sheriff, the police, the child-advocacy center, or DCFS. Whoever received a report was supposed to fill out a form and send it to the other agencies. She recalled that reports to the police or sheriff often got lost, while reports to her center or to DCFS did not get lost (M. Gilles, personal communication, January 10, 2003).

The common legal view that a runaway child is in the wrong complicates the police role. In many states, it is against the law for an unrelated adult to “harbor” a runaway, and authorities are mandated to assist parents in getting a child back. One respondent stated she began running away as early as age 9, that she ran repeatedly, that she usually reached a town that was 30 miles away, and that once she got as far as a city distant 100 miles or more. The respondent said that state or county police—who were not PMC members—never asked her why she was running away, but simply called her parents to come and get her.

Public Image and Political Power of PMCs

Many residents and officials in Utah, where 63% of the population is Mormon (Wright, 2002), are themselves descended from polygamous ancestors. There is a tendency to view PMCs as quaint, but essentially harmless. As one newspaper story put it, “There’s a soft spot in Utah for those densely clustered branches in the family tree. To say great-grampa was a polygamist is kind of amusing—like bragging about an ancestor who rode with Jesse James” (Henetz, 2002).

In 1953, Arizona authorities conducted an ill-advised raid on Hildale-Colorado City (then called Short Creek). The stated objective was to eradicate polygamy in Arizona. State officials rounded up women and children and shipped them off to the Phoenix area, over 500 miles away, where they were kept for more than a year, all continuously expressing their desire to return home. The men were arrested, charged, and then for the most part released on bail The raid, portrayed in the media as a brutal intrusion on a group of harmless religious eccentrics (see, for instance, “The Lonely Men,” 1953). tainted future law-enforcement efforts. It became a rallying point for PMC leaders preaching the hostility of the outside world (Bistline, 1998) and a ready reference point to depict government as hostile to their religious freedom.

Yet fear did not prevent dozens of polygamists from appearing at a Utah state legislative hearing in February 2001, to oppose a bill that would make it a felony for a parent to allow a minor child to enter a polygamous union or for anyone to knowingly solemnize such a union, and that would make it a crime to encourage or promote such a union. Arguing that the latter provisions infringed on their right to teach their religion to their children, the polygamists succeeded in eliminating them and in reducing the act of solemnizing an underage polygamous union from a felony to a misdemeanor (Wright, 2002).

PMCs also control substantial blocs of votes in some sparsely populated rural areas and may be sources of campaign funds, as well. In many counties, key officials such as sheriffs, judges, and county attorneys are elected. David Leavitt, County Attorney for Juab County, Utah, was defeated in November 2002, 1,354 votes to 1,376 votes, after prosecuting and winning a high-profile child-rape and polygamy case (Trauntvein, M., 2002). Even a few votes based on opposition to his role in that case could have caused the 22-vote loss and cost him the election.

These factors might well have played a part in the case of Daniel Barlow, who pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse and was sentenced to 120 days suspended (with credit for 13 days already served), plus 500 hours of community service and 7 years of supervised probation, by Mohave County (Arizona) Judge Richard Weiss. Prosecutor Matt Smith acknowledged that there was a strong case against Barlow, and that the sentence was unusually light, but he cited letters from the victims and other members of the community requesting leniency. He is quoted as saying, “They like to handle things their own way up there,” as if endorsing PMCs’ right to make their own laws. Bizarrely, Smith is also reported to have said that a more traditional approach to sentencing might have had a “chilling effect,” preventing other victims from reporting such crimes in the future! (“Victim’s Pleas Bring Leniency in Sex Abuse Case,” 2002)

In 1989, a Utah newspaper reported a case in which a 15-year-old girl was protesting against family pressure to marry as the second wife of an older man. The girl wanted to live with an aunt outside the community and go to high school. The presiding judge agreed to a deal, which he noted was “unusual”: The father consented to the girl’s plan on condition of the withdrawal of an affidavit filed with the court listing “several allegations regarding the family.” Perhaps this judge did not know that this father had been previously convicted in Arizona of felony child abuse. Perhaps he was simply trying to help the child before him. Or perhaps he knew that the father was a member of a prominent PMC family (Webb, 1989).


This study shows how an isolated, authoritarian group can insulate itself from conventional child-protection activities. The findings are consistent with Cartwright and Kent’s (1992) and Carbo and Gartner’s (1994) comparisons of isolated religious communities to dysfunctional families. Rigid boundaries isolate PMC members from mainstream society. Patriarchal leaders tightly control their followers’ lives, restricting information about the outside world, and intensifying dependency on the group. In this case, a culture frozen in the modes of 150 years ago rejects contemporary views of physical and sexual abuse, and sees any interaction with outsiders as a threat to its very existence. It is important to explore child-protective work with isolated, authoritarian groups with different ideologies to test the hypothesis that similar obstacles will apply to them, as well.

The survey instrument would benefit from revision. Some terms were unclear and, in some areas, additional information would be useful. However, the instrument did elicit valuable information about life inside a closed and secretive community. The individual reports of the respondents, complemented by the observations of outside professionals who work with these groups, formed a consistent and coherent whole.

Systemic breakdowns began when mothers, family members, and professionals mandated to report suspected abuse placed loyalty to the group above their obligations to protect children. But CPS did not meet its obligations, either. Reports were lost, sometimes repeatedly. Responses were mostly tardy and/or incomplete. Further research should investigate whether these kinds of difficulties commonly occur in all CPS investigations or are peculiar to certain populations. Elected officials controlling external systems also appeared concerned to placate PMC leaders at the possible expense of children. Whether and under what circumstances this caution applies to other isolated authoritarian groups is a good question for additional research.

Issues of child abuse appear not to have high priority in some police forces. This is unfortunate because police are often the first stop for people seeking help in abusive situations. It may be time for the child-welfare community to focus on changing this attitude, as the feminist community did for spousal abuse (Danis, 2003). Law enforcement officials who fail to uphold the law should be penalized. Procedures are needed for interstate and international cooperation to track families that move from state to state to avoid child-protective intervention. Legislators and law-enforcement officials should reconsider policies that automatically return runaway children to the home. Procedures for ascertaining why the children ran would be desirable.

The lack of uniform data on the performance of child-protective services hampered this study. Are failures to interview children removed from the home and to complete timely investigations common to CPS work in general? The few performance audits available used differing measures (see, for instance, Michigan Office of the Auditor General, 1997, and Missouri, 2000). Child welfare agencies and state legislatures, as well as researchers, would find uniform performance assessments useful in developing realistic guidelines for practice.

Child-protective procedures for dealing with isolated authoritarian religious or philosophical groups need to be rethought in light of such groups’ hostility to mainstream culture and their commitment to doctrines that might conflict with the law. Although CPS is not responsible for seeking out cases of child abuse, it might be appropriate to send workers into these communities to educate women and children about abuse, reduce their fear of outside contacts, and provide a lifeline in time of need. Child-protective workers who serve isolated authoritarian groups would benefit from training in the history, culture, and jargon of the groups so that they are adequately prepared, in the basic adage of all social work, to “meet the clients where they are.” They could find and recruit former members to assist them with this task.

Child-welfare workers need public support to cope with child abuse and neglect in isolated authoritarian groups. Marshall (2002) is probably correct in stating, “Local authorities … are almost completely unaware of the specific abuse emanating from cultic groups and are loath to acknowledge that group abuse is a specific form of abuse that can and does affect children in many ways.” Unspoken assumptions of mainstream culture might also interfere. Writing of the situation in Great Britain, Marshall (2002) continues:

As in many countries there is a philosophical approach that underlies much practice which is enshrined in two maxims: Firstly, evil or psychopathic behavior resides in the individual; and Secondly, cultural diversity must be supported at all costs in a liberal democracy. The link between these statements is that if you root out the evil individuals, you will protect people, including children, from abuse and will preserve the integrity of the cultural groups from which sometimes these evil people emerge. What is undoubtedly missing from such an approach is that the abuse perpetrated in certain groups is undertaken by more than one person and that it can be integrally embedded in the modus operandi of the group and also sometimes in its belief system.


The data in this study show that in 2 of 11 cases, CPS carried out its duty. In 9 other cases, it did not. Comparison with national data about CPS performance suggests that some of the deficiencies were due to common problems, such as excessive caseloads, and do not necessarily reflect avoidance of PMC cases. The cultural difficulties of investigations in secretive, isolated communities, the overall climate in Utah of indulgence toward PMCs and, in both Utah and Arizona, fear of negative political consequences if enforcement efforts are depicted as persecution may also affect CPS performance in PMC cases. Yet Utah DCFS’ concern with “cultural sensitivity” was primarily articulated as a need to cultivate PMC leaders. DCFS did not appear to understand PMC members’ fear of punishment from within or their perception that an alliance with the leader meant that outside authorities would obey the leader rather than enforce the law. A DCFS spokesman was not aware that many PMC members accept abusive or neglectful practices as a norm. It is easy to understand why former members of PMCs interpret CPS’ shortcomings as deference to PMCs. In fact, I could not rule out the possibility that, in some ways, some PMC cases are treated differently than non-PMC cases.


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No one reported a duration between 1 year to 5 years.