Bill to shield kids from gang members might be used in polygamy crackdown

Published February 17, 2005 12:50 am

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Kearns Republican Rep. Eric Hutchings is taking a swipe at street gangs and the crimes they commit.

But a bill he is sponsoring -- requiring juvenile court judges to think twice before sending child abuse victims to live temporarily with a family member who "associates with a gang" -- may inadvertently give courts more authority to crack down on polygamists.

At issue is House Bill 303's definition of "gang" as any group with an identifying symbol or name that engages in a pattern of criminal activity, creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within the community.

"Wouldn't that describe the Legislature?" joked Clearfield Republican Rep. Paul Ray.

But officials with the Division of Child and Family Services admit the language might apply to some polygamist sects.

Republican lawmakers have been slow to pass legislation to give police more authority to enforce a more than century-old ban on polygamy. But plural marriage -- specifically as it is practiced by John Daniel Kingston -- has played a central role in a high-profile child welfare case before 3rd District Juvenile Court Judge Andrew Valdez.

A House committee that on Wednesday approved Hutchings' bill didn't debate the polygamy angle.

But Rep. David Litvack questioned the logic of singling out "one group because we disagree with their beliefs." The Salt Lake City Democrat cited the Ku Klux Klan or Italian Mafia as examples of gangs that have rights to hold their beliefs no matter how deplorable they may be.

In Utah, children who have been removed from a home are often temporarily placed with a grandparent or other relative in an effort to keep families as intact as possible. Before recommending a family member as custodian, caseworkers visit his or her home and run a background check. HB303 would require judges to order caseworkers to also watch for gang association.

"In Utah, we're beginning to see . . . inter-generational gang development," said Hutchings. "You've got gangs with grandpa, dad and son. When kids grow up in this environment, they don't know anything else."

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