Grant helps polygamous violence victims

Associated Press/August 31, 2004
By Mark Thiessen

Salt Lake City -- A federal grant worth nearly $700,000 will be used to help the victims of domestic violence in rural Utah, especially targeting women and children who have fled the nation's largest polygamous enclave in southern Utah.

The money will be used for the state's Safe Passage program, which will coordinate law enforcement, social services, legal aid, housing and transportation, and expand a domestic violence hotline.

"Hallelujah," proclaimed Rowenna Erickson, a co-founder of Tapestry Against Polygamy, a Salt Lake City group that counsels women after leaving polygamous relationships. "This is just the beginning of what can be done."

The $698,636 grant announced Monday was from a U.S. Justice Department program designed to assist rural communities.

The department noted the unique nature of the state's application when targeting problems in Utah's rural polygamous communities, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff told The Associated Press on Monday by telephone from the Republican National Convention in New York.

"We thought it might be a long shot," he said, but officials decided to try because "we've been so frustrated that we didn't have finances."

The money, to be spent over the next two years, will be used in six specific areas:

The Division of Child and Family Services will hire a program manager to coordinate training for social service providers and law enforcement officers to be better prepared to assist victims from polygamous backgrounds.

Utah Legal Services will help victims who need assistance with contested divorces and custody cases.

The state's Domestic Violence Information and Referral Line will be expanded to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It currently only operates 11 1/2 hours a day, closing at 9 p.m.

The Washington County Sheriff's Department will hire an additional deputy and purchase a cruiser to increase services in Hildale and Colorado City. Arizona's Mohave County also will receive money to cover costs incurred when transporting victims to shelters. The St. George Police Department also will provide additional patrol and victim advocate services. "It's going to be helpful for all agencies in that area," said Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheahan.

The DOVE Center, a St. George shelter, will receive funding to hire an additional social service worker to help victims and their children. The center also will upgrade its security system, and a fund will be available to help victims beyond a shelter stay.

Shurtleff's office will work with coordinators from the varying agencies to create and launch a public awareness campaign, which Shurtleff called possibly the most important aspect of the Safe Passage program.

"Having the services in place don't do any good if they don't know about it," he said, noting the "closed society" of Hildale and Colorado City.

An estimated 10,000 members of the polygamist-practicing Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints live in the twin border communities.

Townspeople are told to shun modern communications like radio and television, leaving Shurtleff and others to "figure out the best way to get the information to them."

In this case, he says, that probably means billboards.

Tapestry Against Polygamy founders have found themselves at odds with Shurtleff before, saying the attorney general's office is too soft on those who practice polygamy.

However, Erickson welcomes any education efforts for those trapped in polygamous households.

"I see the devastating effects of this cult mentality upon them, in their behavior, their faces, their belief systems," she said. "It's so widespread and these people aren't even aware of it.

"This is a good beginning," she said.

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