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."
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.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said they will push forward with the Safety Net, hopeful that they can prove to Utah's polygamous groups their sincere intentions.
"They're worried about pressure on me, that we'll have to respond in kind. We've told them 'No, that's not going to happen.' If there is specific cases of abuse, we'll go after those," he said Sunday.
History of raids
The stories of the raids on polygamy have been handed down for generations.
Many of those who live in polygamy grew up with the stories of their parents hiding from the law, or children being separated from their families.
Already, the raid on the YFZ Ranch will become part of the history of the FLDS and by extension, Utah's history of polygamy.
"With the culture, it's going to be another moniker within their history that's going to be passed down from generation to generation," said Shannon Price with the Diversity Foundation, which helps children who have run away or been kicked out of the FLDS Church. "They will put their own spin on it. It will be an oral history."
Many of the children who were taken into state protec-
tive custody have grandparents who were taken into custody in the notorious 1953 raid on Short Creek, now known as Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. In that case, more than 100 Arizona officers and soldiers from the National Guard were used to round up polygamists and put them in jail.
Texas authorities have insisted that their actions were not about polygamy but child abuse.
Ironically, the topic of raids came up at a meeting of the Safety Net Committee just before the YFZ raid occurred. Elaine Tyler, with the southern Utah-based HOPE Organization, said she could see members of the various polygamous communities tense up as they heard the news.
Ask Bonnie Peters of the Family Support Center if the Texas raid will help or hurt the Safety Net Committee's efforts, she stops for a moment to think.
"That's a good question," she said.
Peters says that ultimately, she hopes it will help their efforts.
"What this state has advocated is having the people involved in the issue come together with key players in the community, with players in the government, sit down at the table and resolve the issues," she said.
When the Safety Net Committee was first formed, Murphy said he asked if they would still be talking when people were arrested. He is now re-emphasizing the state's position on prosecuting only crimes within polygamy.
"From the very beginning, we've said we'll stop child abuse, domestic violence and fraud. I'm hearing from the various polygamous groups saying 'That's what we want as well,"' he said. "But in the same breath they're extremely concerned about the Texas raid. It really opens up an old wound."
Hammon said she is tired of hearing all polygamists painted with an anti-polygamy brush. She feels the raid in Texas was "overkill" but said abuse should be stopped. At the same time, she said it will be difficult to trust the authorities.
"They're standing there with all the ammunition and the sharpened knives and they say, 'Trust us?"' she wondered aloud. "Trust is a two-way street, and sometimes you have to earn that trust. (Arizona Attorney General) Terry Goddard and Mark Shurtleff say they're not prosecuting for polygamy, but the laws are on the books."32 comments on this story
Tyler remains optimistic."It might even tighten the groups," she said. "The polygamists attend to break down the barriers and build the bridges. It might help. Maybe we'll get more participation."