SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — With a two-day tour of schools and a Power Point presentation, the polygamist women of Centennial Park, Ariz., presented themselves as adults who choose to live in group marriages where children’s well-being is the top priority.
Their audience: Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and members of their staffs.
And the meetings Thursday and Friday, both sides said the event helped open communication and dispel suspicions that get in the way of providing services to the polygamous communities in the Colorado City, Ariz.-Hildale, Utah area.
“It was a great opening,” Shurtleff said Friday. “There is a large group of people there who condemn the practice of (taking) child brides and child abuse. They don’t want to be painted with a broad brush.”
Last month, Shurtleff and other representatives from law enforcement and social service agencies from Utah and Arizona held a summit in St. George, Utah, to discuss how to prevent child abuse, how to fight fraud and how agencies can assist people in polygamous communities.
The summit came a week after a Washington County, Utah, jury convicted former Hildale-Colorado City police officer Rodney Holm on charges of bigamy and illegal sex with a minor. State lawyers said the conviction would likely bring a new round of prosecutions targeting those who exploit children in plural marriages.
When word circulated about the summit, residents of those communities packed the event to give their views.
Salt Lake City polygamy proponent Mary Batchelor said she met many plural wives at the summit and offered, along with several other polygamy supporters from northern Utah, to arrange another get-together. The women of Centennial Park took over from there.
Batchelor said Centennial Park residents need what she calls a “social safety net,” or somewhere they can go for services without facing additional scrutiny because of their polygamous practices.
The government should use its resources to prosecute abuse rather than targeting situations involving consenting adults, she said.
“The Centennial Park women made it very clear they do care about their children,” Batchelor said. “They do not accept abuse; they report abuse.”
The Centennial Park tour and presentations attracted hundreds of residents of Centennial Park, which has a higher percentage of college-educated women than the general population of both the state and Mohave County, Ariz., where it is located, Batchelor said.
The talks by plural wives and a tour of four schools Thursday were meant to show that Centennial Park residents want their children to get a good education.
A smaller meeting on Friday to discuss the community’s needs was by invitation only, Shurtleff said.
About 30,000 residents live in the twin polygamous communities of Hildale and Colorado City, most of them members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS. A group of dissidents formed their own church in Centennial Park, an unincorporated area south of town. Both groups practice polygamy.
Batchelor said Centennial Park residents want polygamy decriminalized.
Polygamy was a part of early belief of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but was abandoned more than a century ago as the territory sought statehood. The Utah Constitution bans it and the Mormon church now excommunicates those who advocate it, but it is believed that tens of thousands in Utah continue the practice.
Anti-polygamy groups maintain that the problem isn’t marriage between consenting adults.
Rowenna Erickson, a former plural wife and co-founder of the group Tapestry Against Polygamy, has repeatedly argued that as long as polygamous marriages include young girls, the practice is criminal and robs children of the chance to develop an independent identity.