SALT LAKE CITY — Several women told a panel of Utah lawmakers that they left abusive plural marriages with almost no money and few resources, urging support of a proposal intended to make it easier for others like them to exit polygamous communities.
"One of main things needed is mental health," said Luanne Cooper, a former member of the polygamist Kingston Group who said she has spoken with several girls and boys who have left more recently. "I wish so much that I could tell them, 'You need therapy, and there are resources for you to get therapy.'''
After testimony from Cooper and others, the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously Friday to advance the bill, which would make state reparations money available to victims of bigamy. The felony offense in Utah is defined as a married person living with someone else they consider a second spouse.
The measure, HB214, is one of several pending proposals at the state Capitol that are designed to better help victims of domestic violence.
Rep. Kyle Andersen, R-North Ogden, said no arrest, charge or conviction would be needed for the victims to apply for the services.
"To free themselves, these victims often leave everything they know behind," he said. "They just want to be free. So all they have to do is say, 'I was in a bigamous relationship and I want to get out.'" His proposal would allow both children and adults to apply for the money.
"It makes sense to do this," added Gary Scheller, director of the Utah Office for Victims of Crime. The agency provides reimbursement to victims for such costs as medical and counseling bills, plus lost wages. The proposal advanced in a unanimous vote and now moves to the full House for consideration. No one at the Friday hearing spoke against the bill, which carries a recurring $3,500 price tag. The office paid out more than $7 million in 2017.
Brielle Decker-Blanchart told the panel she was formerly married to Warren Jeffs, the leader of the polygamous FLDS Church now imprisoned for sexually abusing girls he considered brides. She is no longer enrolled in Medicaid, the federal health-insurance program for the poor, "and could use the funds," she told the panel.
• Also on Friday, the panel considered another proposal seeking to encourage GPS tracking of more domestic violence offenders and those who are released from jail before trial. It did not get a vote after lawmakers cited concerns over fairness for the accused.
Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, told the panel that the ankle monitors could save lives but courts aren't ordering offenders to wear them as often as they could. HB253 is tailored to give judges direction on issuing the ankle monitors and would require courts to report data on the cases to lawmakers.
Among those who spoke in favor of the bill was Heather Wolsey, who said her abuser once tried to go to her office despite a judge's no-contact order. "He was arrested before he even got near me because of GPS. Victims need this tool," she told the panel.
But some committee members said they didn't want to chip away at due process for the accused before a conviction or acquittal.
Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, said he believed round-the-clock monitoring went too far for those whose cases haven't gone to trial. Richard Mauro, executive director of the Salt Lake Legal Defender's association, also had concerns. He said domestic violence includes a range of offenses, from those who slam down a cell phone down one time to those who pose real danger, and the bill does not differentiate based on the severity.5 comments on this story
• Another proposal would allow Utahns to apply for protective orders against acquaintances and co-workers — not just those in romantic relationships. HB100 advanced in a unanimous vote from the judiciary committee on Friday. It would allow more than half of victims who can't currently petition for a protective order to do so, according to Julie Valentine, a BYU nursing professor at work on a study using rape kits from sexual violence incidents in Utah. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, a former prosecutor.
• The committee gave early approval to another measure of Snow's that seeks to boost confidentiality for victims in court cases by ensuring their conversations with victim advocates will be kept private, with some exceptions. HB53 passed out of the committee unanimously over concerns from some defense attorneys who said it could withhold evidence that would work in their clients' favor.