Fundamental Mormons in
Nobody disputes the fact that the fathers are often three or four times older than the mothers. And nobody disputes that many are the "plural wives" -- or concubines -- of men much older than them.
After all, when it comes
time to register the births, midwife Jane Blackmore
says the fathers in this religious community near Creston in south-central
They are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and they believe polygamy is the "new and everlasting covenant."
It is what separates them from mainstream Mormons. Fundamentalists claim they are the true Mormons and it is the mainstream Mormon church that has broken away from Joseph Smith's teachings -- in particular his directive on polygamy.
What Marlene Palmer, a plural wife and the public defender of other plural wives, disputes is whether the women and girls have a choice about becoming "celestial wives" in their teens.
"Women and girls do get to choose who they marry," she says emphatically. "Most are 17, 18 and some are as old as 20 when they get married. There have been some who are 16 and occasionally some who are 15 ... . But they never marry without their parents' permission."
Palmer, 45, is Winston Blackmore's sister. Blackmore,
a powerful businessman and wealthy landowner, is the former bishop of
Palmer has six children and works full-time for her brother's company, J.R. Blackmore and Sons Co.
"I was 17 when I married the first time and 32 the second time and absolutely I had a choice," she says. "It's fabulous. I really love the man."
However, she refuses to say who her second husband is and how many sister wives she has.
The B.C. government is
launching a wide-ranging probe into every aspect of the reclusive,
57-year-old community. Among other things, the investigation is determining
whether what is happening in
There is a law in
MOTHERS AS YOUNG AS 14
B.C. Attorney-General Geoff Plant has promised a police investigation to find out whether any of those laws are being broken. Plant also said the government will look into allegations that racism and sexism are being taught at the government-supported school, as well as allegations that plural wives are claiming to be single mothers so they can collect welfare and child support.
Midwife Jane Blackmore confirms that the youngest mother she has seen was only 14. But there have been others who are 15 and 16 when their babies are born. Most women, she says, have had their first child by 18.
All of her young mothers are healthy and so are all of the babies that she's delivered so far.
"For the most part, younger women have babies easier," says Jane Blackmore. "But the younger women have other problems." She declines to elaborate.
Blackmore is guarded in what she'll say.
Her caution and reluctance to criticize is not surprising. She wants to
is Winston Blackmore's first and only legal wife.
Six of their eight children still live in
"I left because I was finished living that way. I just want to live ..." she paused. "More time will have to pass before I can say anything more than that."
However, she does say of the women who only have one husband: "They are really lucky."
"My concerns are not mainly for the girls, but for the community in general. I'd like there to be more education and more opportunities. The main change will come when there is more education."
WIVES ARE 'ASSIGNED'
Debbie Palmer, 49, shares none of her younger sister's ambiguity about which way of life is better.
She left the community
in 1988 and has been campaigning against what she calls the sexual
exploitation and assault of
At 15, Palmer became the third "wife" to Winston Blackmore's father -- Ray Blackmore, a man 42 years older than her at the time.
After Ray Blackmore died, Debbie was re-assigned first to 54-year-old Sam Ralston. By the time she left, she had had three different "husbands" and eight children. She was never legally married.
Palmer took all of her children with her when she left, even though the polygamous group teaches that mothers have no rights to the children.
And while her sister won't say how many wives Winston Blackmore has, Palmer says the 48-year-old has 26 wives and half of them were "assigned" to him before they finished high school and before they turned 18.
The talk of abuse, neglect, brainwashing and lack of education makes Marlene Palmer fighting mad -- particularly at Debbie Palmer, who was once a sister-wife.
But it's difficult to tell when Marlene is mad. She has taken to heart the church motto to "keep sweet." Her anger is masked by smiles and laughter.
Palmer disputes the allegations, especially the suggestions of abuse.
"I am part of Creston's emergency response team," says Marlene. "I work with the police. I would never, ever keep abuse quiet. If I knew a child or a woman was being abused, I would go to the police."
But even she concedes that it is sometimes difficult to know what happens behind closed doors of people's homes whether it's in a polygamist colony or in the broader community.
'WE ARE FREE AGENTS'
Cherene Palmer emphatically agrees with
Marlene (who, according to one genealogy chart of
Cherene also says if there were abuse, she'd know about it through her close connections in the community and through her work as a teacher's aide at Mormon Hills elementary school -- the school Winston Blackmore set up after he lost control of the Bountiful elementary-secondary school to a rival leader in the community.
She waves a set of keys as she talks.
"We are free agents," says Cherene. "I have a bank card. I have my own car and my own home. Absolutely no one is pushing me."
Cherene is 57 and the mother of 14
children, all of whom live in and around
Marlene Palmer -- like
her brother -- welcomes the wide-ranging probe into allegations of sexual
exploitation, sexual abuse and claims of racist and sexist teachings at
"I think it's wonderful. If they go through the homes and if they find something, I wholeheartedly support getting it corrected," she said.
Marlene is so convinced
that all is well in
However, after a bit of working out, Marlene has a change of heart about being tour guide. Cherene offers to do it instead. And we were almost out of the office when Winston Blackmore called.
The women had a brief
meeting in a back office. When they emerged, Marlene said Blackmore
didn't think it would be a good idea if any of them went with us to
(Blackmore also refused to take us on a tour and he refused repeated requests for an interview.)
She says Blackmore doesn't want to exacerbate tensions at
But the tensions in the
community may have less to do with the provincial investigation and more to
do with an internal power struggle over control of the estimated 13,000
SPLIT IN THE FAITH
Blackmore -- the once powerful bishop and
a loyal follower of Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints president and prophet Rulon Jeffs -- has become a
pariah to nearly half the people in
Jeffs has ex-communicated virtually everyone who
might challenge him -- including Blackmore.
Hundreds have been ex-communicated in
The split has been
"I totally stay away from them," Cherene Palmer says of the Jeffs' faction. "I don't know what they believe. I don't want to know. I know what I believe."
All of her children live
"I occasionally say hi to her. But that is about as far as it goes. ... My daughter doesn't want me talking to her children. She's afraid I'll tell them something and they'll get into trouble."
Cherene doesn't believe the rift in the community can ever be healed.