Polygamy-issues panel has new leader

Salt Lake Tribune/June 7, 2008

A committee that has worked as a liaison between polygamous communitiee and government officials in Utah has a new coordinator.

The Utah Attorney General's Office announced Friday that Pat Merkley has been hired to lead the Safety Net Committee. She will take over the post in August.

"Pat is someone who can get things done because she cares," said Paul Murphy, spokesman for the attorney general's office.

Murphy said Merkley's education, background and track record working with polygamous communities helped her rise out of a strong field of contenders for the job.

"She knows the problems, she knows the strengths and probably has more experience than anyone to step in and help people in that community," he said.

Created nearly five years ago, the committee provides outreach services to polygamous communities and educates government agencies about fundamentalist Mormon culture. Some 300 people from 60 different agencies have been involved in the effort over the years. Murphy has led the group since its inception.

The Salt Lake Tribune/ was not able to reach Merkley for a comment Friday evening.

Merkley, a licensed social worker, has worked for Valley Mental Health, the YWCA and, as a contractor for the Family Support Center, leads group counseling sessions for women in plural marriages or formerly in a plural marriage.

Merkley has participated for several years in the committee she will now oversee.

The Legislature earlier this year set aside $305,000 to fund the position, hire a case manager, support the domestic violence hot line and cover other expenses related to the Safety Net Committee. The state had used a three-year federal grant to cover its activities, but lost the funds last summer.

The committee has brought both defenders and critics of plural marriage together in what at times has been an uneasy alliance.

One group, Tapestry Against Polygamy, refused to participate because the committee included women in polygamous relationships; some members have resisted a push from fundamentalists to tackle decriminalization of the lifestyle.

Merkley will now be tasked with holding the committee together as it enters a new phase.

"She is fair, open-minded and she has taken the time to learn what she needs to so she can have a level of trust and dialogue, something a lot of other people haven't done," said Heidi Mattingly Foster, a plural wife and member of the Davis County Cooperative Society, a fundamentalist group in the Salt Lake Valley with about 1,500 members. "She also is able to think outside the box."

It was Merkley, for example, who suggested during a child welfare case involving Foster's children that standard domestic violence counseling groups did not work for plural families. That led to the creation of groups designed specifically for women from polygamous communities.

"She has worked well with members of the culture, and some who have had challenges and some who've left," said Mary Batchelor, a co-founder of Principle Voices and a Safety Net Committee member. "She has the skill and ability to . . . make sure everybody's voice counts."

Michelle Benward, director of New Frontiers for Families, said she hopes Merkley will act immediately to prioritize competing demands for assistance that the committee juggles.

"My biggest hope is that she will create some priorities and, as a group, we will focus on those," said Benward, whose St. George program works with teens and young adults who've left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. "I cross my fingers and hope my kids are part of that focus."

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