The raid on the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch in Texas will be a specter hanging over a summit on polygamy in St. George this week.

Polygamists, government bureaucrats and social service workers will converge at the Dixie Center on Thursday for a town hall forum, put on each year by the Utah and Arizona Attorney Generals' Safety Net Committee. This year, organizers expect heightened interest.

"Obviously, because so many of the people are from Colorado City and Hildale, because they went to Eldorado," said Jane Irvine, the community outreach director for the Arizona Attorney General's Office. "I think that's all the more reason that people want to have this town hall, to try and answer questions and continue to have the dialogue."

A few Texas child welfare workers plan to attend, said Paul Murphy, the Safety Net coordinator for the Utah Attorney General's Office.

"We want for them to answer questions, and also ask questions and learn from what we've been doing here," he said.

This is the fifth year the summit has been held. It started when a group of plural wives crashed a 2003

summit on "the polygamy problem," demanding to be heard. That led to the creation of the Safety Net Committee, composed of people from Utah and Arizona's polygamous communities, representatives from government agencies, nonprofit social service groups and others, to reach out to help victims of abuse and neglect in closed societies.

Last month's raid in Texas, which resulted in 464 children from the FLDS Church's YFZ Ranch being placed state protective custody, has upset many.

"I think that because we're talking about children, families and abuse issues, emotions will be high — my emotions will be high," said Joyce Steed, a member of the Centennial Park, Ariz., community. "My hope is we're getting the message out there that Utah and Arizona have been working with plural family communities, and they've been having a successful interaction."

Security has also been heightened for the event, which features Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard.

Public relations

Before the Texas raid, the theme of this year's summit was "media and polygamy." It's something many from polygamous community have had painful, first-hand experience dealing with.

"In the media, our lifestyle and beliefs get painted as abusers and people who commit welfare fraud," said Steed. "I don't think all media portrays it that way. My concern is we really need to separate the lifestyle from the actions of individuals."

Murphy, a former TV news reporter, said it is frustrating for the news media as well.

"I was always frustrated in trying to tell the story of polygamists because they rarely wanted to be involved in telling their story," he said. "There was a tension from the beginning from people asking questions and those who were being asked the questions. Even the most thoughtful reporters, when they would come into Colorado City and Hildale, there were these images of children fleeing from the cameras."

Isolation and secrecy lead people to suspect the worst, Murphy said.

"That's why we've been trying to open up the dialogue so people can know the good and the bad — not just the bad," he said.

Legalization?

The Centennial Park Action Committee, a pro-polygamy group, insists that one way to end all the isolation and secrecy is to legalize polygamy.

"Right now, you can't tell why so many plural families are closed and secretive. Is it because it's a felony and they're protecting their families or is it because there's some sinister activity taking place? The grand majority are just trying to protect their families," said Steed.

Polygamy is prohibited by the Utah and Arizona constitutions and bigamy is a felony. Mohave County, Ariz., Supervisor Buster Johnson spoke out against decriminalization in a statement he issued on the town hall.

"It is past time for Arizona to do the right thing," Johnson wrote. "Sitting on panels with those who are violating the law is a slap in the face to the children who have been abused and will continued to be abuse (sic) because of inaction and apathy by elected officials."

The Arizona Attorney General's Office said it remains focused on enforcing laws, especially crimes of abuse within polygamous communities.

"We haven't really entertained any change in the law regarding the piece in the constitution prohibiting polygamy," said Irvine.

The Utah Attorney General's Office said anyone seeking a change in laws has to work through the state legislatures.

"The polygamous communities have to deal strongly with the problems of child abuse and domestic violence," Murphy said.

It would most certainly be an uphill battle, but Steed remains hopeful.

"We are citizens that want to uphold the laws, protect our children and raise our families," she said.


E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com