A State Run Hotline Offers Help To Polygamist Families

ABC 4 News/February 12, 2004

The Utah Attorney General announced Thursday the expansion of the state's Domestic Violence Information Line to serve victims of abuse in polygamous communities.

Attorney General Mark Shurtleff also said his office was working to erect a billboard advertising the anonymous and confidential service in Hildale, the polygamous stronghold 300 miles south of Salt Lake City on the Arizona border.

The statewide hotline, which receives about 205 calls a month, should be available "to everybody in this state without regard to religion, where you live and your political and religious views," Shurtleff said at a news conference at the Community Services Council, which houses the call center.

Staff members answering phone lines received sensitivity training from former and current polygamist wives, said A.J. Hunt, the hotline's coordinator.

"We feel that our staff is definitely capable and ready to handle calls from any kind of background," she said.

Fliers advertising the service will be circulated in community centers and stores in the dual communities of Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz., where an estimated 10,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints live. The FLDS church holds polygamy as a sacred tenet.

Without the hotline, the only other opportunity for victims of abuse to seek help in these communities is to call 911, which is answered by local law enforcement. Shurtleff said he doubted whether abuse victims should rely on local police to help respond to abuse complaints because they themselves are polygamists and members of the FLDS church.

The Mohave County, Ariz., and Washington County Sheriff's Offices also have jurisdiction in Colorado City and Hildale, respectively, and have expressed interest in helping in such cases, Shurtleff said.

Shurtleff declined to comment on his office's investigation into criminal activity in the polygamist enclave, except to say it was ongoing. Various federal, state and local agencies were looking at different types of crimes in the area, he said, but noted that confidential calls to the hotline will not be shared with investigators.

The attorney general's office is trying not to alienate residents of the dual communities, who have historically been distrustful of government, he said.

"That's what we're trying to engender, the trust, and you don't get that by going in with guns pulled and arresting everybody," Shurtleff said. "We're doing it (the investigation) in a very organized and appropriate manner."

Linda Kelsch of the polygamy advocacy group, Principle Voices for Polygamy, said although it may initially be difficult for outsiders to reach women in polygamous communities, "If they use this line and it's successful, word will get out."

Shurtleff's office has applied for a $700,000 federal grant that would go toward staffing the hotline 24 hours a day. It is currently staffed from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week.

The grant would also be used to create "Safe Passage Program," that would provide transportation, social services, and additional law enforcement for domestic violence victims in polygamous communities.

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