A landmark custody dispute involving a polygamist family has raised the ire of many people and brought one of the policies of the Utah Department of Social Services into question.

A 5th District judge this week ruled that the Fischer family of Hildale, Washington County, cannot adopt the six children they've been rearing for the past 18 months. The family plans to appeal.However those appeals come out, and whether or not the Fischers would teach the children their polygamous beliefs aside, how does the Utah Department of Social Services justify approving such an adoption when polygamy violates Utah law?

The state agency's report on the adoption mentioned the polygamous relationship, but didn't evaluate it. Nor did it make a finding of "moral fitness" as described by law.

Officials for the department make no apologies when they point to an "informal" policy in which the practice of polygamy isn't considered when Utah social workers make their recommendations for adoption. They say they will wait for the outcome of the appeals in the case before changing the policy.

A spokesman for the agency said it was merely following the advice given several years ago by the state attorney general's office, namely, that the job of Social Services was to determine fitness of the home, not its legality. The attorney general said the legal question was up to the courts. But how does one separate breaking the law from moral fitness?

By defining polygamy as a religious and not a moral practice, such a policy says that plural marriage does not disqualify persons who practice it, despite what the law clearly says about it being a crime.

This has led attorneys for the children's relatives, who oppose the adoption, to accuse the state of being an accomplice in creating an illegal family relationship.

It is hard to take issue with their point. Were prospective adoptive parents to break another Utah law, such information would surely show up on their evaluation - and well it should.

While there may be some justification in terms of manpower, priorities, and public safety in not trying to arrest polygamists - the law is not meant to be utterly ignored.

Simply treating the law as if it didn't exist is hardly the proper approach for a state agency to take in its official actions.