Utah's attorney general will hold a town hall meeting in Salt Lake City next month to discuss how to reach out to people inside and outside of polygamy.
The meeting is the latest in a series of forums that have evolved over the past two years, giving government insight into Utah's polygamous communities and soliciting public comment on how to solve some of the unique issues surrounding plural marriage.
The March 1 town hall meeting at the University of Utah is being organized in part by a special Safety Net Committee made up of polygamists, government officials and social service workers that has quietly worked to bring everyone to the same table to talk.
"I was there at the first summit in St. George, where (Attorney General) Mark Shurtleff met to talk about the polygamy problem," said Marlyne Hammon, who lives in the polygamous community of Centennial Park, Ariz. "I thought, 'For crying out loud, they've got all these people coming in and they don't have any polygamists invited.' "
Originally organized just for law enforcement and bureaucratic agencies in Utah and Arizona, Hammon and dozens of plural wives and children stormed the August 2003 meeting, demanding to be heard. So many showed up that the meeting had to be moved from a hotel ballroom to the Dixie Convention Center.
Paul Murphy, the attorney general's Safety Net Committee coordinator, said the plural wives' protest turned out to be a good thing.
"They said, 'Don't make decisions about us, without us,' " he said.
Two years later, representatives from nearly all of the polygamous groups across the state are sitting at the table. Representatives from Centennial Park, the Davis County Cooperative Society, the Apostolic United Brethren and even the Fundamentalist LDS Church have attended the monthly meetings.
Despite Safety Net's good intentions, not everyone feels invited. The leading anti-polygamy group in Utah, Tapestry Against Polygamy, claims its members have felt unwelcome at the committee meetings and their suggestions have been rebuffed by the Utah Attorney General's Office.
"There's a lot of people that attend those meetings who are from the same organizations that our people have left," said Vicky Prunty, the director of Tapestry Against Polygamy. "When they're in the same room as their former relatives and church members, they're concerned that things they say could go back to their family or their leaders."
Prunty said that before the Safety Net Committee was founded, Tapestry Against Polygamy approached Shurtleff about ways to help women and children leave abusive situations within plural marriage.
"When we went to the Attorney General's Office, it was to help people leaving polygamy," she said. "The attorney general has turned it around to build a bridge into the polygamous communities. That's not part of our mission. It's black and white to us."
Since then, Tapestry Against Polygamy has declined to participate in the meetings.
Funded by a $700,000 federal grant that provided law enforcement, legal help, social services, education and shelter for domestic violence victims, the Safety Net Committee has tried to reach out to polygamous groups scattered from Creston, Canada, to Colorado City, Ariz.
A domestic violence hotline has been expanded and operators have been trained on situations specific to polygamy. Additional police officers patrol the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Support groups are meeting to help women leaving domestic violence and child abuse. A newsletter is also being distributed throughout Utah's polygamous churches and communities either by hand or by mail, telling people about available services.
"The FLDS is still being fairly closed off about it," said Suzanne Chavira, who coordinates the grant. "I think they're seeing it, but their mind-set is to shun it because it's the outside community."
Other polygamous communities have become quite active in the Safety Net Committee.
"I felt like it would be a good thing to get involved," said Carlene Cannon, a member of the Davis County Cooperative Society. The group is based in the Salt Lake City area and made up of members of the Kingston family.
Meetings of the Safety Net Committee became very emotional when one of polygamist John Daniel Kingston's purported wives, Heidi Mattingly-Foster, became involved in a custody battle for her children with the state of Utah.
"In some of our very first meetings, I said 'It's nice that we're sitting together and talking now, but what happens when we start arresting people for child abuse and beating their wives and fraud?'" Murphy said. "At that time, they said 'We'll still be here.'"
Murphy said the Kingston custody case provided a way for government workers to understand members of the group.
"We actually had somebody from DCFS come out to our community and teach us how to prevent child abuse, teach us what is child abuse. It was really educational for our community and it was educational for their side," said Cannon. "It dispelled some of the myths. Maybe they found out that we didn't have horns."
Cannon said members of her community were glad for the experience of talking with DCFS, but she stopped short of calling it a "bridge building" experience.
"I don't think DCFS should have ever taken those children," she said. "We've definitely grown. We've learned a lot from (the Kingston) case and I'm sure DCFS has learned a lot about our community, too."
Among the Safety Net Committee members interviewed by the Deseret Morning News, each acknowledged there is a fine line that is being walked. In one hand, the Utah Attorney General's Office appears to be offering an olive branch. In the other hand is a pair of handcuffs.Comment on this story
"It's going to take some time for those who are the most closed off. We are making progress with the Safety Net. People are learning and people are trusting us," Shurtleff said.
Recently, the attorney general traveled to Canada to meet with authorities about the polygamous enclaves there. The polygamous groups in Creston, British Columbia, are setting up their own Safety Net Committee.
Marlyne Hammon has remained active in the Safety Net Committee that meets in Colorado City and St. George. She said Centennial Park is working to end the isolation faced by many polygamous groups."I still see that we have a hard time getting a message across to people even some of the people we work with in the Safety Net meetings. They've got their minds made up," she said. "But I feel that we've made some progress here. We've made some wonderful contacts and some people have put aside their prejudices. They can see the good in our lives."