Deidre Henderson: Utah’s polygamy law creates a culture of fear and abuse

(Rick Bowmer AP) In this Dec. 16, 2014 photo, girls stand in a playground in Colorado City, Ariz.

The fact that Warren Jeffs, a notorious polygamist, is languishing in prison on two felony counts of child sexual assault is well known. What is less known is how Jeffs was able to create a culture of fear among his followers that allowed him to perpetuate his abuse for so long.

I’ve spent many months researching Utah’s history and meeting with current and former polygamists from communities throughout Utah to answer that question. The clear consensus I hear from a wide range of voices — including victims, victim advocates, prosecutors, law enforcement, and social workers — is consistent: Utah law bears much of the blame.

Unlawful cohabitation in Utah has been a felony since 1935. Contrary to the law’s intended purpose of eliminating polygamy, it has instead enabled abuse. Like alcohol’s prohibition a century ago, which gave rise to Al Capone and a dangerous black market, today’s prohibition on polygamy has created a shadow society in which the vulnerable make easy prey.

It is in these reclusive environments that abuse happens with impunity. Fear and isolation breed secrecy, like a petri dish in which dark and ugly things grow. The fear isn’t theoretical. Polygamists not long ago experienced their homes being raided, men and women being imprisoned and hundreds of children being forcibly removed by the government.

One county attorney explained to me that Warren Jeffs had “weaponized” Utah law in order to perpetuate that fear and isolation. Branding all polygamists as felons obstructs integration into society and limits access to education, healthcare, and justice; it also allows abuse to escalate unchecked.

I’ve spoken with many current and former polygamists who described how they were taught from a young age to lie about their families and keep secrets from the outside world. Some women shared how they had been abused, but family members pressured them to “sweep it under the rug” because of the high stakes involved in reporting to law enforcement.

I was both moved and horrified by their personal accounts. The history of raids and family separations, combined with the blanket ban on an entire lifestyle, leads to the fear that an investigation might break up an entire family, removing the children and incarcerating the parents. That’s a high hurdle, and so abuse is kept quiet.

Martin Luther King famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” Lowering the criminal penalty for otherwise law-abiding polygamists is how we begin introducing light into polygamist communities in Utah.

Let me be clear: I am not seeking to legalize polygamy or provide for multiple marriage licenses. What I am aiming to do during the legislative session is address the human rights crisis our law has created. We must build a bridge where we’ve had a wall for nearly a century.

In short, my proposal in SB102 is to codify the current practice of the Utah Attorney General’s Office and county attorneys throughout the state: Don’t prosecute otherwise law-abiding polygamists, but instead focus on actual crimes like fraud and abuse. We want to encourage more reporting and easier investigation of abuse, and the way to do that, after consulting with prosecutors and polygamists alike, is to reduce the criminal penalty so the high barrier to community integration is lowered.

Utah should have a legal climate where plural families feel more comfortable sending their children to school, taking them to the doctor or approaching law enforcement. Simply telling them about a prosecutor’s current policy is insufficient, as that can change any time. Elected officials need to send the message clearly by changing the law to give them certainty and confidence. We need to build trust so we can work together to address abuse, and that comes through an open hand, rather than a closed fist.

Branding all polygamists as felons has facilitated abuse, not eliminated polygamy. I’m committed to addressing this home-grown human rights crisis so that Utah no longer has a shadow society where predators can thrive.

Deidre Henderson

Deidre Henderson is a state senator representing District 7 in southern Utah County.