Program increasing services to polygamous groups

The Associated Press/July 9, 2009

Salt Lake City - On any given day, Pat Merkley helps clients with everything from registering for Social Security and accessing housing to providing marriage counseling to women trying to bring harmony to their polygamous family's home.

Merkley is coordinator of Safety Net, an outreach program that works to help polygamous communities in Utah and Arizona obtain public services and offers cultural awareness training to service providers so they better understand how to work with plural families.

Once a part-time committee, Safety Net launched as a full-time program in July 2008 and statistics show a growing need for what Safety Net provides.

Between July 2008 and March 2009, 1,500 people sought services or support. Of those, 129 from polygamous communities sought victim services for domestic violence, child abuse or sexual abuse. Another 141 sought counseling, while 348 service providers - including social workers, lawyers and medical personnel - received training.

Members of each of the major polygamous groups, including the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Apostolic United Brethren and the Davis County Cooperative Society, have sought help, Merkley said.

"They are starting to see that we'll do anything for them. Point to therapy, case management or work with those who are leaving," said Merkley, a licensed social worker with more than 20 years of working in the polygamous culture. "The trust is coming slowly, but we still have a long way to go in educating both sides."

An educational conference for service providers is planned for next month, she said.

Polygamy is a legacy of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members brought the practice to Utah in 1847. The mainstream Mormon church abandoned polygamy in 1890 in preparation for Utah's statehood and now excommunicates members found engaged in the practice.

A survey by the polygamy advocacy group Principle Voices identified roughly 37,000 people who live or believe in polygamy across the Intermountain West. Most are not members of any organized church, but all consider themselves fundamentalist Mormons and believe the practice will bring exaltation in the next life.

Safety Net was formed in 2003 by the Utah attorney general's office, which recognized that the insular nature of polygamous groups meant that many people - including victims of crime - failed to seek services because they feared prosecution.

Bigamy is illegal in both Utah and Arizona, where most known Intermountain West polygamous sects live. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who has long said he would not prosecute adults in polygamous relationships, believed conversation could lead to a new level of openness that would help prevent abuse.

With the support of the Arizona attorney general, social services providers, nonprofits and representatives from several polygamous groups from both states gathered to talk about and seek solutions to problems.

It could have easily been a lose-lose proposition. Critics of plural marriage sat on one side of the table, squaring off with women - and sometimes men - who defend or live in the polygamous culture. As mediator, the Utah attorney general's office reached out to polygamists, but also couldn't ignore its underlying prosecutorial responsibility.

Despite the uneasy footing, the group forged small initiatives that began to break down barriers, build trust and connect individuals with the help they needed. The committee also produced a primer for service providers that gives a cultural overview of the polygamous culture, including a snapshot of the various organized polygamous churches and a glossary of common terms.

"This is where (Shurtleff) deserves a lot of credit," said Paul Murphy, spokesman for the attorney general's office and the original committee's chairman. "There was nothing to be gained politically or professionally, and this was kind of a middle approach to polygamy that nobody had tried before."

Last year, with $305,000 in funding from the Utah Legislature, Shurtleff's office asked the Family Support Center, a Utah nonprofit that has provided counseling, parenting classes and other services for 33 years, to take over Safety Net. The original committee of advisers, including Murphy, still meets monthly and continues a spirited discussion of the issues.

"What I envisioned in the beginning, I'm actually seeing in action now," said Mary Batchelor, a co-founder of the Principle Voices. "I believe we are still in the early stages of what we can be."

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