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Utah Paying a High Price for Polygamy

Law: Child abuse and welfare fraud are part of plural marriage's toll. Still, there is a reluctance to pursue lawbreakers.


HILDALE, Utah — A declaration of war it was not. But in Utah, where polygamy has been a persistent but submerged issue for generations, no governor had so much as whispered a public opinion on the topic before.

So when Gov. Mike Leavitt asserted last May that "polygamy is against the law" and polygamist Tom Green was sentenced last month to five years in prison, it appeared to signal an unprecedented crackdown on multiple marriages.

With the Winter Olympics only a few months off, image-conscious public officials are starting to talk tough about a crime that law enforcement officials have routinely ignored.

But it remains to be seen if the tough talk will translate into action any time soon.

Testimony during the Green trial and interviews across Utah reveal just how entrenched polygamy remains in a state where plural marriage is practiced by about 2% of the population.

The Green trial exposed a broad range of illegal activity among modern-day polygamists. But public officials will confront many obstacles if they are serious about prosecuting crimes associated with polygamy, according to interviews with anti-polygamy activists and child welfare workers and a search of public records by The Times.

For one thing, some local law enforcement officials don't want to be bothered with what they view as a private matter, while local politicians don't want to alienate important constituencies.

Local prosecutors, meanwhile, say they can't afford to pursue the complex crimes associated with polygamy, from welfare fraud to child neglect.

"If all of a sudden you say you're going to prosecute all polygamists, we'd all have to hire about 15 people in each of our offices," said Mel Wilson, attorney for Davis County, north of Salt Lake City.

The secrecy in which polygamy thrives adds another layer of frustration for law enforcement.

But the biggest obstacle may be Utah's unique religious and cultural history. Polygamy was an integral part of the Mormon faith until the church outlawed the practice in 1890. But in Utah, where 80% of residents are Mormon, many are reluctant to condemn beliefs held by their great-grandfathers and revered church prophets.

It would be difficult to find anyone of note in public life with no family tie to the ancient practice called "The Principle." The governor, most of the state's legislators as well as the prosecutor and the judge in the Green case are all descended from polygamists.

"For people in Utah to confront polygamy means they have to confront practices condoned by their ancestors, including mine," said Ron Allen, a Democratic state senator who sponsored a bill aimed at stopping minors from marrying into polygamy. The bill became law in April.

Allen adds: "We are in a faith-based environment that holds ancestors in high esteem. To deal with polygamy properly, we have to say that what our ancestors created has led to pretty horrific crimes for us now. How do you resolve that?"

According to law enforcement officials and others familiar with how plural marriage operates, the problems usually associated with polygamy include:

* High levels of incest, child abuse and wife battering. But the crimes are rarely reported because of the secrecy surrounding polygamous communities, law enforcement officials say.

* Widespread reliance on welfare. In the tiny town of Hildale, for example, along the Utah-Arizona border, as many as 50% of the residents are on public assistance, according to state and federal records. The fraud occurs when plural wives claim they don't know the whereabouts of their children's father.

* Unusual levels of child poverty. For example, across the street from Hildale in Colorado City, Ariz., every school-age child in town was living below the poverty level, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 1997, the most current available.

* Wide-ranging tax fraud. Polygamists often underestimate their income or, as in Green's case, don't file returns at all.

* Limited educational opportunities. Last year the prophet of the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints Church, a group excommunicated more than a century ago for practicing polygamy, ordered the town's children to stop attending public school, resulting in the closure of the local elementary school.

* Overtaxed public services. Medicaid pays for more than one-third of the babies born in Utah, and plural wives account for a disproportionate share of those births, child welfare advocates say.

"It's very hard to prosecute--you need witnesses, you need cooperation," said Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff. "Because of the closed nature of the society and the threats to the young brides, people are afraid to talk. But the state needs to protect these people."

Statistics about polygamy are hard to come by. For the most part, information about polygamy and its problems comes from a small group of investigators or from a handful of polygamists and plural wives who have left the fold.

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