6 Mar 2009

Polygamy 'Safety Net' helps hundreds

Deseret News - March 5, 2009

by Ben Winslow

In only three months, 557 people were helped by a coalition seeking to combat abuse and neglect within often isolated polygamous communities.
The numbers paint a stark portrait of the need to continue reaching out, say advocates for the Safety Net Committee, a coalition of government agencies, social service workers, activists and polygamists working to provide services to victims in remote communities.
"I think it's obviously dramatically needed, because in just this brief amount of time, these people have come forward and needed some kind of help," Pat Merkley, the committee's coordinator, told the Deseret News. "They're an underserved population."
During a meeting of the committee Thursday, Merkley said that out of the 557 helped between October and December 2008, a dozen needed victim services for issues such as domestic violence or abuse. The committee provided other services ranging from counseling and group therapy to case management, assistance and prevention.
"I'm in awe of what you've accomplished," Anne Wilde of the pro-polygamy group Principle Voices told Merkley.
Merkley said she wished they could reach people earlier.
"They're almost at a crisis point by the time they reach us," she told committee members. "I wish people would come sooner. Maybe through your grapevine, you can encourage them to come to us sooner."
The committee is working to educate within the communities themselves, partnering with advocates and representatives from many of Utah's and Arizona's diverse fundamentalist groups. That takes time, Merkley said.
Advocates are also combatting fear that spread after the raid on the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch in Texas, where hundreds of children were taken into state protective custody over what is believed to be a phony abuse call.
"It may have had the opposite impact with no one wanting to come forward because, 'Look, they will take our children,' " Merkley said.
Safety Net case manager Chelsea Gambles said the distance between the polygamous communities on the Utah-Arizona border and more urban areas has been an issue in providing services.
"St. George is not that far away, but it is a drive," Gambles said. "Generally they have to come to St. George, and that presents its own barriers."
The Safety Net is a program of the nonprofit Family Support Center, which has a contract with the state through the Utah Attorney General's Office. Like everyone else in this brutal economic climate, they are fighting for funding in the state Legislature.
Merkley said the numbers show the Safety Net is needed. In fact, she said she's bracing for more victims in the next quarter as word spreads.
"I think they feel safer and more confident that we can provide them with that safety," Merkley said. "The word is getting out."
E-MAIL: bwinslow@desnews.com
How to help: Donations can be made to the Family Support Center in care of the Safety Net Committee at 1760 W. 4805 South, Taylorsville, UT, 84118, or online at familysupportcenter.org.
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