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State, polygamous group meet

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The leader of the West's largest organized polygamous group appears to have lived up to his promise to allow state officials access to his followers and into a compound in Bluffdale.

A team of 10 criminal and domestic abuse experts from the Utah Attorney General's Office spent three hours Sunday in Bluffdale on property owned by the United Apostolic Brethren.More than 900 followers, dressed in their Sunday best, attended a "special meeting" called by Allred, who did not reveal who would be visiting the church.

The unprecedented meeting was the first step in a five-point action plan announced Monday by Utah Attorney General Jan Graham.

"It's never been a priority for the state to have a strategy," Graham said Monday. "The fact these victims came forward has given us an opportunity."

Last spring, several former polygamist women formed the Tapestry of Polygamy and revealed details of systemic abuses in all of the state's largest polygamous communities, many of which are organized around religious philosophies.

"Claims of religious freedoms are no defense to the crimes of statutory rape, incest, sexual misconduct with a minor, and child abuse," Graham wrote in a state-ment.

The goal of the five-point plan is to promote awareness about laws, break down barriers of secrecy and give victims access to justice. The plan also mandates a comprehensive review of laws and agency policies to make sure child victims aren't being ignored because they live within polygamy.

The plan is made up of the following:

- A victim hotline. A toll-free line staffed 24-hours-per-day by people with special expertise on victimization within polygamy.

- Victim shelter. Adequate capacity for women and their children to accommodate special needs of victims within polygamy.

- Review of child endangerment laws and policy. The State Children's Justice Advisory Board will review laws and policy.

- Educational neglect task force. A group to review state and local school procedures on truancy and early withdrawal from school. Some minors may be removed from public school against their will to assume duties within the polygamist communities.

- Domestic violence training in polygamist groups.

Mike King, an investigator for the Attorney General's Office who has spent 10 years studying the state's polygamous communities, opened talks with Allred in late July.

Since then, King has met with Allred, a handful of his top church officials and some family members in discussions that have historically been rare between state officials and members of these so-called "secret societies."

King was one who attended Sunday's meeting. Graham did not attend, believing her presence would be distracting to the outcome.

The followers were broken up in several groups - 275 men in one, 400 women in another. About 200 young people - ages 12 to 18 - were divided up by gender.

The team talked about family violence and its effects on children; domestic abuse and protective orders; what is and is not appropriate conduct between children and adults, and power and control issues and the effects of emotional abuse.

Afterward, hundreds - and King said he was not exaggerating - stood milling around the officials asking for phone numbers and where they could get more information.

The response was better than King expected.

Newspapers covering polygamy recently have pointed out that every 10 years or so, this issue comes up, then retreats with few changes to law or practice.

"It's been treated with a kind of Band-aid approach," King said. "We hope this will be an end to that."

Clearly, some in attendance needed the information.

After the session Sunday with women in the group, one woman raised her hand and asked if the same programs are available if the woman is a polygamist.

"It's tragic that they feel they are less deserving of the protection," he said.

The questions came until King and his colleagues had to go.

"What will the state do if it hears about allegations of abuse?"

"What about polygamy? Will the state prosecute us for being polygamists?"

"Whom do we call if we know about abuses in our community?"

"It was a real good exchange of information," King said.

Those who attended were cautious not to say that abuses were happening, he said. "But the questions would lead me to believe they are equally concerned about abuses, and that some people know about abuses that are happening with neighbors or co-workers or other people in the group."

As Utah's polygamous heritage has made national and international headlines in recent months, Allred, leader of the 5,000 members, has advanced a never-before-seen public relations campaign.

The 84-year-old leader has written letters to newspapers and members of the Utah Legislature lauding efforts to raise the minimum marriage age from 14 to 16 and reasserting the group's adherence to all laws. He said his group's rule was that "girls should not even start courting until they are at least 17."

In August, Allred called a press conference to denounce abuses within polygamous cultures and distinguish his group from others.

State investigators will continue their work beyond Allred's group, Graham said. "Our goal is to get everyone, whether by agreement or by some other way. So far, it has all been voluntary."

"What I'm hoping is the other groups will realize this is the state reaching out," King said. "And they need to reach back."