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Refugees of polygamy band together for action
Group is calling on Legislature to stop the abuse

SHARE Refugees of polygamy band together for action
Group is calling on Legislature to stop the abuse

It has been 16 months since Gov. Mike Leavitt's comments on polygamy and a criminal child abuse trial involving a powerful polygamous clan in Utah placed the Beehive State and its polygamous subculture under scrutiny of national and world journalists.

Now, after months of relative quiet, a television documentary, more "refugees" from polygamy seeking help and legislation proposed by a state lawmaker have retrained the spotlight on plural marriage in Utah, where it is illegal under the state's constitution but practiced by an estimated 30,000 residents."I just don't think this is one that's going away," said Sen. Ron Allen, D-Stansbury Park, who will ask fellow lawmakers for $750,000 for a new program to combat polygamy when the Utah State Legislature meets in January.

The spotted cows of Chick-Fil-A billboard fame will still encourage passers-by to "Eat more chickin.' " The hottest mustached celebrity or athlete will still query: "Got milk?"

But tucked between highway roadsigns and advertisements, Allen hopes lawmakers will pay for another kind of billboard -- one that might offer some drivers along I-15 not the way to a better sandwich or a stronger set of bones, but to freedom.

"Do you want to leave polygamy?" the message on the billboard would ask. It would have a hotline number, and the name of someone to contact for help.

"I envision that happening within two years," Allen said. "We've got to recognize that these crimes occur in this state, and we've got to put more resources, more energy and more effort toward them."

The basic human rights of women and children are being violated, Allen said. "And if we don't do something, the state of Utah is facing a great deal of embarrassment in the next couple of years when the Olympics come to town."

The program he hopes to fund would have several goals:

To provide emergency grants to buy hotel space for women with large numbers of children who are leaving polygamy.

To buy public service announcements and billboards.

To operate a polygamy help hotline.

To deliver outreach and community education information to polygamy communities.

To train Utah law enforcers how to better spot, prosecute and investigate crimes in these so-called "secret societies."

Law enforcers have real problems getting victims and witnesses to talk about crimes in polygamous communities.

Recently, says Allen, investigators got reliable information that a 64-year-old polygamist was involved in marriages to minors and sex abuse involving his nieces. But detectives trying to talk to the victims can't get the girls to answer the door. "We are really struggling with the issues of having third-party information," Allen said.

The training offered by his program would be specific to these kinds of problems in investigations. "This would not be a slush fund."

Carmen Thompson's phone has been ringing off the hook.

Since a documentary titled "Inside Polygamy" aired Monday night on A&E Television Network, people from all over the world have called to offer support, money, volunteer hours and old clothes to the Tapestry of Polygamy's effort to help women leaving polygamy.

Thompson was one of many local faces that appeared on the two-hour documentary, which focused on Utah and explained the practice, its history, and details of the case of child abuse and a case of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor involving two leaders of the Kingston polygamous clan.

The documentary airs again Saturday, Nov. 13, at 1 p.m. on the A&E channel.

This week, the A&E Web site received more than 150 written comments about the program. About a third were from practicing polygamists or those supporting the practice. Others urged a crackdown on polygamy.

"Yes, men should be arrested and imprisoned," one person wrote. "Little girls should be able to be little girls, not little wives."

"All elected officials of Utah should be ashamed for their lack of courage and principles," wrote another.

This kind of publicity is good for Thompson, who has criticized state officials for not doing enough to get tough on the crimes within the communities.

The pressure on officials, Thompson says, "is not going to go away. And we're here to make sure it doesn't."

Of the dozens of calls and other pleas Thompson has received for help over the past few months, one came from Janae King.

The 42-year-old woman piled herself and a few belongings into her Suburu station wagon, and drove away from the 180-acre log home in the woods near Missoula, Mont., and left her husband of 23 years and her life as a polygamist wife behind.

She never intended to be a polygamist wife. Never intended for things to end up the way they did for herself and her 10 children, eight of whom still live on the Montana farm with her ex-husband and another wife.

She grew up pretty normal, she says, in a home on the east bench of Salt Lake City. She went to Highland High then met her former husband at Utah State University in Logan. They were both young and he was, she says, "drop dead gorgeous." Her kids are, too, she says in a soft, subdued voice. Things were OK in the marriage for a while, but about six years ago, the couple agreed, together, that another wife would join the family.

"To be honest," King says, "I looked at it as someone who could help.

"I had 10 kids. I was homeschooling them in the woods in the middle of nowhere. We had no phone. No electricity."

Even now she says she didn't mind the life too much. She's a farm girl at heart, not a city girl. She liked the collective aspect of the work, the family feeling, even when a third wife joined the family sometime later.

But things went bad somewhere.

"There were parts of my life that I loved, many positive things about people working together in a community," she says.

"Polygamy cannot be lived the way it has been. It's been an abomination. It's very inequitable to women. We have been controlled and dominated by the practice of polygamy," she said. "I had to leave. I had to liberate myself."