11 Dec 2010

Amish distrust of outsiders creates culture of fear and secrecy, prevents reporting child abuse to authorities

The Salt Lake Tribune - June 18, 2010

Psychotherapist: Polygamist Mormons, Amish share traits

By Mark Havnes

St. George » A psychotherapist who works with Amish communities in Indiana says the religious subculture is similar to polygamist Mormon sects in Utah in some ways.

James Cats spoke to about 50 mental health and social service professionals Thursday at the Safety Net Clinical Conference in St. George.

Safety Net was established in 2003 by attorneys general Mark Shurtleff of Utah and Terry Gadded of Arizona to address the isolation created by mutual suspicion between authorities and polygamists.

According to Cats, just as there are Mormon sects with different practices and beliefs, so there are different "perspectives" among the Amish, who live in 27 states and two Canadian Provinces within 1,570 congregations.

"The world is also second place to the Amish," said Cats. "They know it's out there, but they want to keep it at a distance."

The largest and most orthodox Amish group is known as the Old Order. He said they take pride in being considered a "peculiar" people, shunning technology, preferring work over consumption and tradition over change, and put church and community above self.

"Suffering and martyrdom are important parts of living," Cats said. "Riding a buggy keeps people close [to their community] and is more difficult. Life is supposed to be about suffering; they expect it."

He said the Amish distrust of outsiders breeds suspicion of authorities, including providers of mental health and social services. He told the story of one Amish teen who was sentenced to four months in a detention center for abusing a 13-year-old girl. After the sentencing, people stopped reporting abuse, fearing a relative might go to jail, Cats said. And members of the community told the girl that she had to accept some responsibility for the crime to remain in good standing.

He suggested that providers working with such groups try to maintain a presence in the community and identify willing partners while taking a "faith-acceptance" approach.

Allie Darger, a plural wife and member of Independent Fundamentalist Mormons, said she sees many similarities between splinter Mormon groups and the Amish.

"Among fundamentalist [Mormons] there is a diversity and difference of beliefs, and like with any cultural groups, stereotypes exist," said Darger, who lives in Salt Lake City with her husband, who has two other wives.

She said many polygamist Mormons don't talk much about the lifestyle and that can lead to stereotyping, isolation and fear of authorities. Darger said she did not talk to police while growing up because she was afraid her polygamist father might be arrested.

She cited the 1953 raid on Short Creek, now the twin communities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz., home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In the raid, authorities removed children from polygamist homes and prosecuted their fathers, a strategy that largely failed, politically and legally.

"I was told that would never happen nowadays, but then look at what happened in Texas," she said, referring to the raid of an FLDS ranch in Eldorado Texas, where 460 children were taken from their homes.

"That rocked my world," she said. "Fear of losing put all our communities in crisis."

Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, said progress has been made through the Safety Net program. Some polygamists now disavow the practice of marriage of under-aged girls, for example.

He believes the Safety Net program will help prevent extreme reactions such as the Short Creek raid, which he said led to 50 years of isolation for the community. "It was a disgrace."

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