Debating Services, 'Safety' for Utah's Polygamists

Utah state officials recently held a public meeting about providing social services and maintaining "safety" in polygamous communities. Polygamists and their detractors spoke at the event, debating the merits of decriminalizing plural marriage.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

There was an extraordinary town meeting in Salt Lake City last night. It dealt with an issue perhaps unique to Utah: polygamy. NPR's Howard Berkes was there.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Call a Utah town meeting on polygamy and you're bound to fill an auditorium with, well, polygamists. Polygamist wives, former polygamists and former wives. Some of those still living the Principle, as it's called, sported cute buttons with big red hearts, figures of one man and three women and the words Bigger Love. But there was nothing cute about the discussion last night, which was supposed to focus on helping women and children trapped in abusive polygamist groups.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff hosted the meeting.

Mr. MARK SHURTLEFF (Utah Attorney General): We have victims of domestic violence who are afraid to call the police. We had victims who thought no one cared. We had too many people who where afraid to speak out.

BERKES: Shurtleff is referring to the dark side of a subculture of tens of thousands of people in at least six Western states. Most adhere to the polygamist principles taught by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith. Mormons have long since abandoned polygamy but the practice persists in splinter groups and some of those groups force under age girls to marry men decades older.

Ms. CAROLYN JESSUP (Former Polygamist Wife): In the community I was raised in the police were all members of the same religion, so you could not go to the police for help because they would send you back to your priestess head who was sometimes the perpetrator.

BERKES: At eighteen Carolyn Jessup was assigned to marry a fifty year old man who eventually had seven wives and fifty-four children. Jessup had eight children herself before she escaped the marriage and the group.

Ms. JESSUP: The man I married did view his wives as property. The religious leadership over him basically would view a woman as property too. So you had no power to leave, and in a situation where a woman has no power to leave a marriage, she also has no power to protect herself or to protect her children.

BERKES: Town meeting was supposed to highlight social service programs designed to help victims of polygamy and encourage dialogue between state officials and polygamists, who tend to be secretive because they fear prosecution. In fact, a crackdown is under way in Utah and Arizona targeting abusive polygamists. Utah Attorney General Shurtleff is essentially dangling a carrot from one hand while brandishing a club with the other.

Mr. SHURTLEFF: We have that, but we feel that by establishing the connection so they begin to trust us they will see that we really are just focused on those crimes and it really is not about religion.

BERKES: Those crimes are primarily sexual abuse. Polygamy itself, Shurtleff says, is difficult to prosecute. And it's not inherently abusive, according to Marlene Hammond, an outspoken advocate from one polygamist group.

Ms. MARLENE HAMMOND (Advocate for Polygamy): Where abuses may have happened among polygamists in polygamist settings, that does not define us. We feel no shame in who we are, this is our civil right.

BERKES: Some of the polygamist wives at the meeting spoke about loving, even liberating households with extended families to care for children. Some spoke of decriminalizing polygamy. That would make helping victims easier, suggests Chuck Larson, a state welfare official who was speaking for himself he said and not his agency.

Mr. CHUCK LARSON (State Welfare Official): If polygamy were decriminalized I believe it would solve a lot of the problems that we have because...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. LARSON: ...simply because then there would be no reason for these people to hide from the law. When people hide from the law, the law cannot see them and when the people are not protected by the law they may tend to place themselves under an unscrupulous authority.

BERKES: The idea dominated the rest of the discussion, which frustrated Rowena Erickson, a former polygamist wife who is part of a group trying to stamp out polygamy.

Ms. ROWENA ERICKSON (Former Polygamist Wife): The rest of the nation isn't going to allow it. Because Utah is looked upon as an oddity and people from all over the United States that we talked with and communicate with are aware of the odd things going on here and they're disgusted and sickened by it.

BERKES: Still, there was an atmosphere of defiance in the room. Polygamy is as old as the world, noted Marlene Hammond, and it's here to stay.

Howard Berkes NPR News, Salt Lake City.

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