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At Safety Net conference, people who escaped polygamy share stories

Published June 7, 2013 5:28 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As we reported earlier, the Safety Net conference took place all day Friday. Photographer Trent Nelson and I spent the day at the conference and heard people with varying connections to the polygamous community speak about the unique challenges and issues it faces.

There was way too much to report on everything that happened, but I've included a few highlights below.

At the end of the conference Safety Net director Shelli Mecham acknowledged that many of the stories shared Friday represented one end of the polygamy spectrum. She said that was intentional because service providers "work mostly with people who have left polygamy." But she also said there are a variety of perspectives related to polygamy.

Leaving polygamy • Probably the most salient part of the event was a panel discussion featuring four people who have left polygamous communities.

The first, a young woman who left the Kingston group about 2 1/2 years ago, said she grew up in squalor on a farm in Woods Cross. There was mold growing on the walls and in the carpet of the home, she said, and rats found their way in through holes in the walls.

"I was bitten multiple times," she recalled.

She also said she was told she was a bad kid and was led to fear being taken out of her home by government workers.

"There is a lot of abuse in this community — physical, mental, sexual," she said at one point.

The young woman later married a man she didn't know when she was 16 years old.

Next, a young man spoke about life after leaving the FLDS community in 2000. He said education was his biggest challenge, but went on to get his GED and go to college.

Following the young man's remarks, a woman who left the Apostolic United Brethren spoke about her conversion to the polygamous lifestyle and how her heart broke when her husband drove away on his honeymoon with his second wife.

The woman also said she was one of the "consenting adults" that people read about, but that she nevertheless had been emotionally coerced.

The last panelist was another woman who left the Kingston group. She said she married her cousin because it was what she thought God wanted her to do.

After having two daughters by the time she was 20, she realized she didn't want the girls to grow up in the same circumstances.

The discussion was moderated by Elissa Wall, who asked panelists about losing their religion, mental health issues and other topics related to their departure from polygamy.

Despite the stories shared by the panelists, conference attendee and polygamist Anne Wilde said other people could have been on panels who would have shared very different, more positive stories of polygamy.

Legal challenges • Attorney Drew Briney spoke about legal challenges emerging from the polygamous community. Among other things, he said some polygamists can struggle with how to represent their families in government records. He gave the example of a polygamous man who was a public employee and was concerned about Obamacare, which was requiring him to list all of his dependents. The man apparently had only ever listed the children of his legal wife on his insurance policy, but was suddenly being told he had to list everyone.

"He doesn't want government assistance but he's being forced to accept it," Briney said.

Briney didn't explain all the possible solutions to that situation or others he has faced, but said divorce and bankruptcy, along with other issues involving property and benefits, can be particularly complicated for polygamists.

Briney also said that in his experience, the number one fear among polygamists is prosecution and incarceration. That fear prevents them from getting certain kinds of government assistance, he added, though many he has met "hate socialist programs."

Briney said he has not dealt with members of the FLDS or Kingston groups.

Conflict and religious freedom • Attorney Roger Hoole has represented various people both inside and outside the polygamous community and explained his objectives after becoming involved in the issue.

Among other things, Hoole said his first goal was to free the United Effort Plan from the control of the FLDS church because it was "being used to abuse children." Other goals included decertifying police officers in the Short Creek area, making it a felony to kick a child out of a family, and helping future generations.

Responding to Briney's speech — which was called"Obeying the law while you're breaking the law" — Hoole also said that sometimes religious belief can conflict with the laws in ways that have no easy resolutions.

"It's complicated," he said. "There's a lot of tension surrounding religious liberty and there probably always will be."

He added later that religious freedom doesn't allow people to engage in physical or sexual abuse of children, or to make them religious martyrs. Hoole also said that his cases have been about children.

"For every child marriage there are hundreds of acts of abuse," he said, adding that he thinks the state is falling short on the issue.

Late in his speech, Hoole said that homes owned by the UEP should be given to the people, not continually held by the trust, and if homeowners deed them back to the church, that's their choice.

— Jim Dalrymple