Diversion tactics

Edmonton Sun/August 31, 2006
By Mindelle Jacobs

If the authorities are too timid to go after polygamists because of constitutional quivers, the state can seriously wound such sects using other tactics, experts say.

While it's unclear who will fill the leadership vacuum following the arrest of fugitive polygamist head Warren Jeffs, it opens a window of opportunity to help save some of the brainwashed women and children, according to a lawyer and a cult expert.

Calgary social justice lawyer Vaughn Marshall says he hopes that education and social services officials take a closer look at what's happening in the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C.

The education authorities should be far more careful monitoring what's being taught in Bountiful, and social services officials need to do what they can to prevent underage marriages, he says.

"If the department of education is more vigilant in making sure that Bountiful children get an education, and if they're more vigilant in ... making sure that underage girls don't get married, then at least that will give the people the opportunity to ... make their own choices," says Marshall.

"I don't see any other way out of it because they're going to be shielded from outside influence for a long period of time."

Jane Blackmore, the former wife (and the only legal one) of Bountiful polygamist leader Winston Blackmore, freed herself from the commune because she got an education and others can, too, Marshall adds.

Polygamous communities are terrible places for women and kids but there is no simple way to shut such communes down, he says.

"It shouldn't be that way, you could say, with respect to what the women and children are likely going to have to do, but the reality is that education is at least one option to set them free."

University of Alberta sociologist Stephen Kent, an expert in alternative religions, agrees that battling the social foundations that allow polygamy to continue is the key to breaking the cycle.

Getting outsiders involved in the education system and setting up social agencies near polygamous communities in case people need help is crucial, he says.

The authorities in Utah and Arizona have been systematically "chipping away" at polygamous communities for some time, Kent says.

Polygamous cops have been ousted from the force, one polygamous judge was removed and court judgments have privatized property that was previously communally owned, he says.

U.S. officials are also cracking down on welfare fraud by polygamists, Kent adds.

"They're essentially trying to wrest control of key social organizations out of the hands of polygamists and into the hands of people more integrated in mainstream society," he explains.

Much of the strategy is an attempt to avoid direct confrontation, he notes, adding the authorities don't want a disaster such as the one that took place in Waco, Texas, where members of the Branch Davidian cult were killed.

"It's a multi-pronged strategy," Kent says. "We're not going to see the end of polygamy here but I think it's certainly going to reduce in numbers and strength."

Now that Jeffs has been arrested, there could be a major leadership struggle that will likely weaken the polygamist camps in both the U.S. and Canada, says Kent.

"For some people, the emotional hold of Jeffs is weakening. Others, however, will see his arrest as persecution, which is a feeling that's part of polygamous self-definition."

Could this be the beginning of the end for the self-described polygamous prophet? Pray that it's so.

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