Pat Merkley would have preferred a quieter way to start her new job.

She has just been hired as the coordinator of the Safety Net, a committee created to reach out to Utah's polygamous communities to help victims of abuse and neglect. Merkley moves into the job in the aftermath of the raid on the Fundamentalist LDS Church's Texas ranch — and amid strong emotions being felt by Utah's many plural communities.

"It was a bomb that went off there," she said of the raid. "It heightens the emotions more, intensifies the emotions for everyone."

Merkley said her goal is to stay rational, tolerant, sensitive and grounded as she works with the various polygamous groups, social services agencies, activists, politicians and law enforcement.

"We need someone with her social work background to take this up another notch," said Paul Murphy, who is the current Safety Net coordinator. "I think Pat's the best qualified, because of her work with the polygamous groups and her experience dealing with different agencies and people."

Merkley has worked for Valley Mental Health and is known for her work creating a domestic-violence support group for women in plural families.

"I have assisted some polygamous women in leaving relationships and leaving their family and their culture," she said Monday. "I've seen the other side, too, where there are those that are happy and need support and further education of what the norms and mores of our society are in regards to abuse."

Members of Utah's polygamous communities welcome the news of Merkley's involvement.

"She's already proven she's capable of doing the job," said Heidi Foster, a member of the Kingston group, who had Merkley as her therapist during a custody case.

"She's proven she can work with both sides and be fair to both of them," Foster said Monday.

The Safety Net Committee was originally created under the umbrella of the Utah and Arizona attorneys general. The Utah Legislature funded the job, and the money was shifted toward a nonprofit family support center. Merkley believes the move also makes a statement that they're moving beyond a purely law enforcement and prosecutorial arena.

"I think they're also saying that now, in order to move forward, we need to try some other new ways of dialoguing and reaching out to this culture," she said. "We can't just go in like Texas and approach the problem that way."

Murphy, who is also the spokesman for Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, said law enforcement will still have a role in the Safety Net.

"In order for people to be safe, they need to trust there are people there to help them," he said. "You make people safe by protecting victims and prosecuting perpetrators."

Murphy said the Safety Net Committee has always appeared as an "odd fit" for the attorney general's office, but it took on the task when no one else would. Merkley said her goals are to reach out to the polygamous communities, help the agencies that help abuse victims, and educate the community at large about the diversity of polygamy.

"Polygamy is not going away," she said. "We can condemn and criticize all we want, but that's not necessarily going to help the situation."


E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com