Meeting seeks to build trust, respect with polygamist communities

Attorneys general of Utah, Arizona say correcting the mistakes of the past is a priority

ST. GEORGE – The isolation that surrounded polygamous communities for decades is breaking down and trust is, slowly but steadily, growing.

But continued progress depends on a commitment to a specific principle: Treating each other with respect, said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard.

His comment came at the end of the Town Hall Meeting on polygamy, a two-hour airing of views on the controversial practice that included numerous examples of where trust – and respect – have broken down.

Among the most compelling stories: that of Natalie Hammon, a basketball coach at El Capital School in Centennial Park, Ariz., south of the Utah state line.

Hammon described how the boys basketball team was taunted and even attacked during one away game by fans who shouted, “Hang the prophet.”

She blamed prejudice, stereotypes and misinformation for the heckling.

“A lot of these kids have nothing to do with polygamy and they are being taunted everywhere they go,” she said.

About 200 people attended the public forum, the third since 2003 and sponsored by the Safety Net Committee, composed of representatives of polygamous communities, law enforcement and social service agencies.

It followed a daylong workshop on authoritarian groups, led by Livia Bardin, a social worker and self-described cult expert.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said he rejected both a “scorched-earth policy” (arrest everyone) and a “Mary Had a Little Lamb” approach (ignore it) when he carved a path for dealing with polygamy six years ago.

Instead, Shurtleff said he went with a third option, one he calls “established justice.”

That choice focuses on prosecuting serious crimes, particularly those against women and children, but takes the “religious polygamy issue out of it.”

The result, Shurtleff said, is that men who abused children have been prosecuted and women and children who needed help have received services.

“Have we done enough? No. Have we made a difference? Absolutely,” Shurtleff said.

Goddard said the two states have made “great progress” in erasing the border between them and that Nevada is poised to join their prosecutorial efforts.

The states are still working to build trust with polygamous communities, Goddard said, adding that Arizona “figured out the best way to destroy that trust back in 1953” when it raided the community now known as Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz.

“It contributed to people ending up on opposite sides, where people weren’t willing to cooperate,” he said. “Those days are over.”

LeAnne Timpson, a member of the Centennial Park Action Committee, said her group is pushing for an “integrated society and political environment, in which polygamous and nonpolygamous cultures can fit.”

But public opinion about polygamy is “worse today than it was three years ago,” she said. “I don’t care if those kids are polygamists, they have a right to be treated with respect,” she said, referring to the basketball team.

Earlier in the day, Bardin shared information about how control groups work, how to reach out to them and how to be sensitive to their experiences.

Bardin said the Safety Net Committee needs to make “major, major shifts” to be more effective, such as finding a way to provide services to victims without requiring them to leave their communities, which often compounds their difficulties and amplifies their sense of loss.

That point was driven home later by Maureen Crump, Utah Safe Passage Grant manager, who wept as she described the challenges of women with whom she works.

“These women, they leave everything behind or they are left behind,” she said, pleading for more resources and help.

The Safety Net Committee has pursued a difficult two-track mission: Provide access to service agencies, and to the justice system.

Ann Wright, a committee member, highlighted the challenges the group faces in “narrowing the chasm.”

“After three years of working together, it is disheartening to see that people who have polygamy as a religious principle are still looked upon as not having any choice in their lives,” said Wright during the morning session. “The Safety Net members and the population at large do not understand our choices. Therefore, in their eyes, we have no choice.”

One audience member at the public forum said victims are reluctant to participate with the committee because of its pro-polygamy majority and that more focus is needed on “victims, refugees and those trying to leave.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday April 26, 2007.
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