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Officials plan info blitz to steer polygamists to safety

The Salt Lake Tribune, USA
Jan. 17, 2004
Hilary G. Smith • Sunday January 18, 2004

St. GEORGE — Billboards and fliers will be used in a new campaign to assure women and children of polygamous families that they have a safe place to go should they choose to leave their homes.

On Friday, law enforcement officers, advocates and child-welfare workers from Utah and Arizona met to prepare for what might be an exodus of women and children from the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The cities straddle the Utah-Arizona state line about 40 miles east of St. George.

“We’re hearing that families are being torn apart,” said Rickell James-Irish of the Division of Child and Family Services in St. George.

Trouble started a week ago when 20 men, all prominent members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, were stripped of their membership and told to leave town. FLDS leader Warren Jeffs ordered the men, including former Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow, to leave their wives and children. If history held true, James-Irish said, the women would be married to other men in the community.

For the past week, Washington County sheriff’s deputies have been joined by their counterparts from Arizona in stepped-up patrols through the two towns.

“It’s quiet — really quiet, amazingly enough,” said Robert Tersigni, Washington County deputy sheriff. So far, the only incident was a disagreement with Colorado City law enforcement. “They were upset. They don’t like us up there,” he said.

Nevertheless, officers are staying. They also are prepared to transport women and children who want to leave. “We’ll be right there for them” Tersigni said.

Little information is coming from the desert communities, where residents have been admonished not to speak to outsiders. An anonymous letter showed up in many mailboxes last week, stating that Louis Barlow — Dan’s older brother — should become the FLDS leader.

Among recipients of the letter was Ben Bistline, the area’s self-appointed historian. Bistline grew up in a polygamous family but became disenchanted with the lifestyle and, in the late 1980s, joined a group of dissidents who challenged the church’s communal property practices in court. Church leaders tried to evict the dissidents from their homes but the group prevailed in court and won the right to stay.

The Bistlines left anyway. Last March, Bistline and his wife of 52 years, Annie, left Colorado City and now live in an mobile home in a desolate part of the Arizona Strip called the Cane Beds. The couple had converted to the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which condemns plural marriage, and no longer wanted to live in the community.

“We are so relieved to be out here,” Annie Bistline said.

The Bistlines know of several women who have left their husbands and sometimes their children to get away from the polygamous culture. “It’s hard for a woman to leave. It’s possible, but it’s hard,” Ben Bistline said.

That’s where people such as Lynda Whitlock come in. As director of the DOVE Center, a women’s shelter in St. George, she was vocal in her support Friday of women, children and teens who want to leave plural marriages. Since many women in Hildale and Colorado City receive government aid for their children through the Women, Infants and Children program, fliers with the number 1-800-897-LINK will be handed out along with their WIC vouchers. The number works in Utah and Arizona and connects callers with domestic violence shelters and resources. The number also will soon appear on a large billboard outside of the twin towns.

“My staff knows we are treating the abuse, not the culture,” Whitlock said. “Polygamist or not, these people are abused and we want to help them.”

Across the state line, the sentiment is the same.

“It is important to us that the first people coming out of these towns realize success,” said Roger Illingworth, program administrator of Arizona’s Victims of Crime Act funds. On Friday, Illingworth offered money and staff support to Utah agencies should they be flooded with requests from Colorado City. “We know two-thirds of the population out there lives in Arizona,” he said.

No matter. The help is available to families in both states. “There is a real commitment among people to offer help,” said Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General’s Office. “I just hope people who need the help take it.”

Many times, women in abusive situations — polygamist or otherwise — are afraid to seek help or do not realize help is available.

A woman who fled Colorado City recently and settled along the Wasatch Front said she did not understand how terrible her life had been until she left.

“Life outside of there was really strange to me. I didn’t realize how I had been mistreated and abused until I left,” she said in a telephone interview Friday. “Maybe I would have left sooner if I had had someone to call.”

Today, she is trying to help her daughter and grandchildren leave.

“It’s not that easy,” she said. “She’s afraid that Warren Jeffs will tell her husband she has to go. If that happens, they’ll take the kids away and kick her out.”

Her daughter, a professional with an advanced degree, would have no problem securing a good job elsewhere, her mother said, but the woman has stayed in the marriage for her children.

“I’m afraid for her,” she said.

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