COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff called it an "oversight" when he failed to invite members of Utah's largest polygamist communities to his recent "Polygamy Summit" in St. George.
That oversight turned out to be a calculated decision.
"It was our summit, and it was our right to open or close it," Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, told the Deseret Morning News. "We did invite some polygamists. At first they declined to come."
Those invitations were extended to two northern Utah women who support plural marriage. Neither woman is from the plural communities of Colorado City or its closest neighbors, Centennial Park, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
Because the summit didn't include anyone from the polygamist communities, Salt Lake City attorney Rod Parker, who represents the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which teaches plural marriage as a central tenet, said he thinks the summit was flawed from its conception.
In a three-page letter hand delivered to Shurtleff one day before the Aug. 22 summit, Parker pointed out the polygamists' lack of representation.
"A true summit would include members of the plural culture and would be an effort to build bridges and mutual respect between government and that culture," Parker wrote. "A summit that includes only law enforcement, Tapestry (an anti-polygamy group), and similar parties simply reinforces the mistrust and fear that has been the hallmark of the state's relationship with the polygamists for the past 100 years."
Most members of the FLDS church live in Hildale, Colorado City, and Bountiful, British Columbia. Centennial Park residents do not belong to the FLDS church and wear less restrictive clothing and hairstyles, a distinctive mark of the plural culture in Colorado City and Hildale.
The summit's agenda included identifying ways for law enforcement, educators, social service workers and others to help women and
children flee abusive polygamous homes. Allegations of child and domestic abuse, welfare fraud, underage marriages, bigamy and other crimes were discussed at the summit.
A closed-door law enforcement meeting was held at the Abbey Inn, while an overflow crowd was at a public meeting in the Dixie Center.
But a law-enforcement officer from a polygamist community was not allowed to attend the law enforcement session. Colorado City reserve officer Shem Jessop was asked to leave the meeting, Colorado City Police Chief Sam Roundy said.
"They didn't have a good reason to keep him out. If they're going to talk about us, why can't we come and be part of the discussion?" Roundy said.
Murphy at first said Jessop was stopped from attending the law enforcement meeting because "he wasn't a certified officer." When asked if everyone in the room was a certified peace officer, Murphy said Jessop, who has never let his cross-certification in Utah and Arizona lapse, simply wasn't welcome.
"He (Jessop) wasn't invited. Probably he'll be invited another time, another day," Murphy said. "Our primary purpose was to gather governmental and social agencies together. This wasn't the end-all meeting for anybody."
During the public hearing at the Dixie Center, Shurtleff reminded those in attendance that only those on his formal invitation list would be allowed to stay for a closed-door session with policymakers.
Those who were invited included representatives from Tapestry Against Polygamy; Washington County educators; "Help the Child Brides," an anti-polygamy group in St. George; social service agencies; the Washington County Children's Justice Center; and elected officials from Utah and Arizona.
The media and members of the plural communities were not on that list. Shurtleff allowed media into the Dixie Center meeting after receiving complaints, although Centennial Park women who had showed up waited outside the room.
But Shurtleff did meet with the women once the session ended, Murphy pointed out.
"When we discovered the polygamists had not gone into that meeting, we apologized to them. We met with them (the Centennial Park women), listened to them, and will be meeting with them again," Murphy said. "They applauded Mark after he met with them. They said they want to help, and we're grateful for what they said. We want to stop 50 years of ignoring that (polygamous) community and hopefully put an end to child abuse and fraud."
After the public hearing, several of the women from Centennial Park called home to report that others at the summit said they were "brainwashed" and "part of a cult."
It's those kind of comments that feed prejudice and do nothing to further understanding between people, Parker and Roundy said.
"He's (Shurtleff) just believing all the stigma about us like everybody else," Roundy said.
One of the untruths being perpetuated, Roundy said, is that his police officers have lost their Utah certification. Each of the nine officers in Roundy's department is certified to work the Arizona side, although only four of his five full-time officers are certified to work in Utah. One reserve officer and one full-time officer have yet to recertify in Utah, he added.
Tammy Palmer, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Public Safety and POST, confirmed Roundy's numbers.
Those attending the policymaking session offered several suggestions to help those wanting to leave polygamous communities, whether their homes are abusive or not.
Among the ideas were setting up a hotline, adding an interview area in the Mohave County Justice of the Peace Center, opening a safe haven for runaways, developing a protocol for handling children who flee, and looking into allegations of educational neglect.
Other ideas included setting up a nonprofit foundation to help secure grant money to help those fleeing plural lifestyles, establishing of a task force to coordinate various public and private efforts, and educating people on what the various agencies offer and what is and isn't fraud.
Roundy said he believes Shurtleff's polygamy summit will likely make it even more difficult for those in plural families to open up to outsiders.
"Since the 1953 raid people have really been careful, even in talking to law enforcement. But you really can't blame them. I would be amused, if that's the right word, to see them build a shelter out here. I'd be surprised if anybody opened the door."