18 Dec 2010

Victim advocates see spike in calls from people in fundamentalist Mormon communities reporting crimes and seeking services

KSTU Fox 13 News - Utah August 5, 2010

More people seeking help from polygamist support group

by Ben Winslow

ST. GEORGE, Utah -- Efforts to reach out to people in Utah and Arizona's polygamous communities are showing more success. A coalition of people from all sides of the issue say they're breaking down barriers and getting help to those who really need it.

Members of the Safety Net Committee met here on Thursday. The recent troubles in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., and the Utah Supreme Court's decision to overturn Fundamentalist LDS Church leader Warren Jeffs' criminal convictions were top of mind, but meeting attendees said they did not wish to bring it up. They wanted to keep the peace.

"Probably the reason why I didn't bring it up is because there were FLDS people present here that we don't want to alienate here and cause problems here," said Ross Chatwin, an ex-FLDS member.

The Safety Net is a committee of social workers, government agencies and polygamists trying to build bridges between worlds that historically haven't trusted each other. It was created years ago when the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona met to discuss "the polygamy problem." Plural wives stormed the meeting, demanding that their voices be heard.

"It has evolved," said Marlyne Hammon, a member of the Centennial Park community, near Colorado City. "We can sit here and say things today that we could not in the first Safety Net meeting."

Polygamy is illegal, but because of religious freedom issues and prosecution resources, Utah's Attorney General has said he will only prosecute crimes within polygamy (like abuse and fraud) and not polygamy itself. The state-funded committee was created to help abuse victims, who were often reluctant to seek help.

Pro-polygamy activists believe the state would have more help in combating crimes, if they would decriminalize polygamy.

"That's what people think polygamy is, is forcing young children into marriage," said Hammon. "To me, it's an adult choice, and I should have that choice as well as anybody else."

Victim advocates said Thursday they are seeing a spike in calls from people in fundamentalist Mormon communities reporting crimes and seeking services.

"We have helped those that wanted to leave the culture or had a bad experience," said Pat Merkley, the Safety Net Coordinator. "But the families and marriages have not come forward, like they have this past quarter."

Some who call just want to work out their marriage problems like any monogamous couple and are not seeking to leave their plural families or their communities. That's why the Safety Net is offering support groups and marriage counseling for husbands and wives -- and wives. Unique issues include sister-wives getting along, communicating and dealing with new people who come into the family.

"It's working pretty well," Merkley said. "There's some heated sessions with the family dynamics being numerous wives. But if they're willing, we're willing."

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