Utah's 'Safety Net' for polygamists is tested

Published: Monday, April 14 2008 12:35 a.m. MDT

The raid on the Fundamentalist LDS Church's Texas compound is becoming the first true test for Utah's "Safety Net."

The Utah attorney general's much-touted committee of polygamists, government officials and social service workers has spent the past five years building bridges with the closed polygamist societies, while educating people about abuse, fraud and other crimes. Now, all that work is in danger of being undone by the raid on the YFZ Ranch.

"This is going to be a real test of those relationships and whether they can trust us for what we say we're going to do," said Paul Murphy, the Utah Attorney General Office's Safety Net coordinator.

Already, some members of Utah's polygamous sects are skeptical.

"They assured us over and over and over, 'We're not interested in prosecuting polygamy. We're only going to go after crimes in a community. We're not going to single you out,"' said Heidi Mattingly, a member of the Kingston polygamous group. "Here they are, singling us out. They've got a whole community under house arrest, ripped out of their homes."

Members of the pro-polygamy Centennial Park Action Committee fear relationships could be crippled but were not willing to give up just yet.

"In a way, I feel like it would be ceding our efforts," said Marlyne Hammon. "We have a message that we need to get out and let people understand us."

Foundations

The Safety Net Committee was born out of frustrations by members of Utah's polygamous communities. In 2003, law enforcement and bureaucrats from Utah and Arizona planned to meet in St. George to discuss "the polygamy problem." Dozens of plural wives stormed the meeting, saying: "Don't make decisions about us, without us."

It led to the creation of the committee, with representatives of nearly all of the polygamous groups from Utah and Arizona. (Anti-polygamy groups have been reluctant to participate, saying they have felt unwelcome and that their suggestions have been ignored.)

A $700,000 grant funded law enforcement, legal help, social services, education and shelter for domestic violence victims. A domestic violence hotline was expanded with operators trained on how to handle a call dealing with the unique circumstances of polygamy.

More than 1,300 people sought some form of service through the Safe Passage grant. When it wasn't renewed, the Utah Legislature agreed to begin funding a position to help out.

The fear among some in law enforcement is that those who have been cooperative and friendly, providing information about crimes, will suddenly clam up in the aftermath of the Texas raid.

"One concern that someone may feel is that they don't dare report abuse because they don't want it to happen to our community," Hammon said. "My concern is if there is abuse that it be reported, because we don't want abuse in our community."

Mattingly, who fought the state for years over allegations of child abuse, has participated in the Safety Net Committee meetings. She said any feelings of cooperation may fade with families feeling that if they report something their community could be raided.

"Years of work just went right out the door," Mattingly said.

But Murphy said many members of the polygamous groups are recommitting to the Safety Net.

"I just got another e-mail from a person in a polygamous group. He said, 'If there's abuse in our community, we will do whatever we can to stop it,"' Murphy said.

The Utah Legislature agreed to fund a couple of positions to reach out to underserved communities, which includes polygamy. The help-wanted notices for those jobs were posted last week.

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