Democrats in the Utah Legislature will fight abuse in polygamous families by raising the legal marriage age and providing $1 million to prosecute abuse, another $1 million to shelter women and children running from the illegal lifestyle.

Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell said Tuesday that Democrats want to "at least start cutting at the roots of the polygamy problem" in Utah.His three-prong approach:

- Raise the legal marriage age from 14 to 16. For a girl to marry at 14 or 15, she must have the signed approval of her parents and juvenile court judge.

"I can see where a pregnant girl may want to get married. And her parents and a judge may say that is the right thing to do," said Howell, D-Granite.

- Appropriate $1 million to Utah Attorney General Jan Graham to be used to prosecute various illegal acts sometimes found in polygamous groups. Graham would dole out the funds to county attorneys who would do the actual investigations and prosecutions.

Specifically, the prosecutors would go after statutory rape, incest, sexual abuse, welfare fraud and collection of unpaid child support from absent polygamist fathers.

- Appropriate $1 million to help expand current battered women and children shelter facilities.

"We're thrilled to finally see some of our lawmakers taking a stand," said Carmen Thompson, who left polygamy and is on the board of directors of Tapestry of Polygamy. "It's not enough, but it's a start."

Howell said he has been working with women in the Tapestry group, which is made up of women who have left polygamist relationships and is dedicated to ending the practice.

"If half of what they tell me about what is going on in some of these groups is true, it is putrid, just putrid what is happening to young women in these societies," Howell said.

"Three weeks ago we had a woman break away from a Hildale polygamist family (in southern Utah) and go to St. George. She took her 12 children with her. We couldn't even accommodate them. We finally found two side-by-side apartments for them," Howell said.

In addition to state funds, Howell said he'll also call on local churches, businessmen and the United Way to contribute funds in the housing effort.

"That absolutely includes the LDS Church. I think all community groups need to get together to help (women and children) who want to leave this lifestyle," Howell said.

His bills will be introduced in the 1999 Legislature, Howell said.

"I expect, I welcome, Republican support on this matter. This is not a partisan problem. It is a Utah problem, and we all need to solve it," he said.

Doing nothing is not acceptable, Thompson said.

After months of silence from Utah's Capitol Hill on the subject, it is a step in the right direction, but it is a "baby step," she said.

Lawmakers also may find they can't go around the issue of prosecuting polygamy, which is illegal but considered largely un-pro-se-cutable by many.

In recent months, officials have talked about how to better prosecute crimes that occur in the polygamist cultures, but most elected and public officials say they will not try to prosecute polygamy itself. It is too complicated for a variety of reasons - and couples who live together but aren't married and many others would have to be prosecuted, too.

"What (officials) are going to find is that they can't get through the barriers of polygamy's (secret societies) to prosecute the abuses," she said. "They are going to find out they can't go around it, they are going to have to prosecute polygamy itself."

Meanwhile, women leaving the culture need help, Thompson said, and if the state can provide shelter, it must also be aware these women have special needs.

As with the woman who left Hildale and ended up with her 12 children in St. George, "it's like coming from a Third World country and being dropped in the middle of New York City," she said.

The women have few skills and have no idea about how to get a job. Many of their children aren't immunized.

"These women are going to have a lot of children," said Thompson, who went to a shelter herself when she left a polygamous relationship with her five children. "They wanted to take my 10-year-old son and put him in with the adult males."