SALT LAKE CITY — An increasing number of people are leaving polygamous communities after grappling with edicts and abuses, non-profit groups who deal with Utah’s fundamentalist communities said Friday.
When they leave the closed societies, they often step out into a strange, new world — with few resources.
“Living polygamy is a challenging lifestyle. Leaving polygamy is challenging,” said Shelli Mecham, a coordinator for the Safety Net Committee, a coalition of government workers, social service groups, activists, current and former members of fundamentalist groups created to provide resources to abuse victims within polygamous communities.
The group, supported by the Family Support Center, hosted a conference on Friday for social workers, therapists and other government officials to get education on how to deal with people facing abuse and other problems inside an isolated society. Ex-members of some of the polygamous groups shared their stories of enduring years of abuse and finding the strength to leave.
Tonia Tewell, the director of the non-profit group Holding Out Help, said she has seen a steady increase in people leaving the Fundamentalist LDS Church on the Utah-Arizona border. She said it is because of increasingly bizarre edicts being put down by imprisoned FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.
“Warren is probably more in charge today than he’s ever been. He’s going to go down as a martyr,” she told FOX 13. “He hasn’t officially died but he’s definitely more powerful today than ever.”
Jeffs is serving a life-plus-20 year sentence in a Texas prison for child sex assault. Tewell said the steady exodus of people choosing to leave or getting kicked out is straining her group’s resources.
“Once you’re kicked out, you lose your family, you lose your friends, you lose your entire support structure, your religion, you leave with the clothes on your back and if you’re lucky, your children,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
In an interview with FOX 13 on Friday, the star witness in the criminal prosecution against Jeffs suggested decriminalizing polygamy may help break the cycle of abuse.
“I think it would possibly create some interesting solutions to problems,” said Elissa Wall. “And it would allow for people who choose to live that way to come out in the open and begin to have a generational impact on people (being) educated.”
Wall was 14 when she was forced to marry her cousin in a ceremony presided over by Jeffs. She testified against him in a case that led to his conviction on a charge of rape as an accomplice. Jeffs’ conviction was later overturned by the Utah Supreme Court.
“Polygamy is the big blanket that covers up the child abuse, no education, spousal abuse, physical abuse, mental, all of these different things…,” Wall said Friday.
In the years since Jeffs was convicted, Wall has been outspoken about the abuses inside polygamy, including child-bride marriages. She said she continues to work with people who live plural marriage and those who have chosen to leave the lifestyle. Wall said her focus now is not polygamy itself, but stopping abuse and stopping children from being harmed.
She said decriminalization of polygamy may create an environment of “informed consent,” where people would choose whether to live the lifestyle, ending generations of secrecy.
“If it was decriminalized, and you gave women and men the choice, you would create a much more healthy environment for both the community itself but also for the people living it,” Wall told FOX 13. “Because people could come in and out if they chose to. More than anything, my personal belief is that creating that foundation for a healthy polygamous lifestyle is the only way we’re going to impact the youth. It’s the only way we’re going to protect them.”
Some of those who still live — and believe — in the principle of plural marriage insist decriminalization would allow people to freely report potential abuse without fear of the entire family being prosecuted.
“People are scared to come forward because they’re scared of the prosecution and so that does kind of, in some instances, keep people from letting authorities know about some potential abuse,” said a woman named Leslie, a self-identified fundamentalist Mormon.
Heidi Foster, a member of the Davis County Cooperative Society, said outreach efforts like the Safety Net Committee can only do so much if people still fear the entire family will be prosecuted.
“We want to contribute to society. We want to be friends with our neighbors. Until we are not considered felons, we don’t really feel like we have the opportunity to serve our community the way we want to,” she said.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office has had a longstanding policy not to prosecute polygamy itself because of religious freedom issues. But prosecutors have charged bigamy in concert with other crimes, such as abuse and fraud.
The attorney general’s office has said decriminalization is something that polygamists should take up with their lawmakers. Some polygamists have recently lobbied the Utah State Legislature in an effort to get them to consider the idea.