The Genesis, Text, and Implications of Utah House Bill 214: Office for Victims of Crime Amendments

ICSA Today, 10(2), 2019, 12-13

The Genesis, Text, and Implications of Utah House Bill 214: Office for Victims of Crime Amendments

Ashlen Hilliard

Looking back, I don't really know how I survived those first five years of my life being homeless. When I was kicked out, the topic of polygamy was only talked about in whispers if at all. Today there has been more open conversation regarding this topic and there are more people leaving these cults than ever before. This has created a population of people that are entering a brave new world with little or no resources available to them. It is my opinion that if people truly want to help people leaving these abusive polygamist cults than helping them access affordable housing is the first step change. I can only dream of what those first 5 years of my life would have looked like if I had a safe and consistent place to call home. (Former FLDS member)

In January 2019, I was contacted by an intern who was working for Utah State House Representative Kyle R. Andersen. The intern informed me that the representative was working to pass legislation that would allow the state’s Victims Assistance Fund to provide financial compensation to victims of bigamy, which in a practical sense would include polygamy (that is why the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably).

The proposed bill is House Bill 214: Office for Victims of Crime Amendments (H.B. 214). The intern for Representative Anderson knew about the work that I was involved in with those leaving polygamy and asked if I could do a write-up in support of the Bill and help gather data to answer questions such as “Who’s affected? How many people are victims of this type of abuse? Why is it a problem? Why should we care?”

I was of course eager to contribute information that I have gathered from working with victims rebuilding their lives after polygamy. The topic of polygamy itself is oddly controversial and politicized in Utah, and in the past these efforts have fallen flat. As of the date this article was written, March 2019, the bill in its current state has been approved by the Utah House of Representatives and the Utah State Senate and awaits the governor’s signature.

Genesis of the Bill

Reliable data is difficult when one is documenting polygamous groups because most of them choose to practice in secret. From what we know, the groups are scattered throughout the western United States and Canada. As of 2017, a CBS article1 determined that an estimated 30,000 people just in Utah alone practice polygamy. The largest groups in the state of Utah are the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), the Apostolic Utah Brethren (AUB), and the Davis Cooperative Society (aka the Kingston Clan, or the Order).

The first and perhaps greatest hurdle toward creating a path forward for victims of bigamy was to first categorize it as a felony. As of May 9, 2017, Utah law defines bigamy as follows: 

“a person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing the person has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry and cohabitates with the other person.”2 

Bigamy in Utah is categorized as a third-degree felony; it is a second-degree felony if fraud, child abuse, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, or human trafficking is involved, and also includes the crime of inducing marriage under false pretenses. This change in our state law faced heavy opposition and protest from those living in polygamy at the time.

While I was sitting in the House committee meeting for H.B. 214, I was surprised when no one publicly opposed the proposed bill. Instead, I heard moving testimonies from those who had left polygamy, and how much assistance, such as the proposed law, would have helped their situation at the time.

The Text of the Bill

Previously, the Office for Victims of Crimes would not grant assistance to victims on the basis of bigamy alone. There had to be accompanying crimes such as physical or sexual assault for individuals to qualify for aid. However, under H.B. 214, Section 76-7-101, victims would be eligible for assistance solely upon leaving a bigamous relationship.

The wording in the bill appropriately reflects the criminality involved, stating in Section (c), “‘Criminally injurious conduct’ includes a felony violation of Section 76-7-101 and other conduct leading to the psychological injury of a person resulting from living in a setting that involves a bigamous relationship.”3

This wording works based on the implication that living in a bigamous setting has psychological ramifications. Because the proposal did not change any current law surrounding the characterization of bigamy in the state, the committee saw this as a win. Andersen told the committee: “It’s a victims’ advocate bill, not necessarily an anti-polygamy or a law enforcement bill… We hope this bill will help others get out before suffering this abuse.”4

Implications for the Future

People in the state of Utah are starting to realize that polygamy is not necessarily a choice. Representative Andersen said, “In many cases these individuals were born or were coerced into these situations. To free themselves, these victims often leave everything they know behind and generally have zero family support.”5 There has been a lack of pushback from polygamists on the proposed bill but with how much negative press polygamist groups have received lately, and now that bigamy is a felony, it would be tough to fight legislatures on a victims-assistance bill.

It is also becoming clear to the public that crime can go unnoticed in these secluded communities. For example, the Davis Cooperative Society has been receiving the media’s attention after it was discovered that girls were being transported to Grand Junction, Colorado so that they could legally marry their first cousin.

Holding Out HELP, a nonprofit that exists to help provide those who come from polygamous backgrounds the resources needed to transition from isolation into independence released data that was read by Representative Andersen. The survey evaluated those in the FLDS communities, and the findings highlight why it is so difficult for those leaving these communities to get on their feet. Data collected from Holding out HELP (personal communication, September 6, 2018) indicates that, of those who have left, 46.5% are in poverty, 43% have a high-school education, and 75% have faced sexual assault.6 One of the greatest hurdles is finding affordable housing for former polygamists, and H.B. 214 seeks to mitigate this.

If H.B. 214 receives the governor’s signature, those leaving bigamy and polygamy in Utah will have financial assistance to help them with housing, mental health counseling, and basic living expenses. I look forward to monitoring the bill’s progress and how the outcome further affects these diverse polygamous communities


[1] “Utah Gov. signs law aimed at polygamy,” CBS News, March 29, 2017; see

[2] “76-7-101 Bigamy-Penalty-Defense”; see

[3] “H.B. 214 Office for Victims of Crime Amendments”; see

[4] “Reparations for people who flee polygamy get support from Utah House committee,” Standard-Examiner, February 18, 2019; see

[5] “Reparations for people who flee polygamy get support from Utah House committee,” Standard-Examiner, February 18, 2019; see

About the Author

Ashlen Hilliard was born and raised in a break-off of the mainstream Church of Christ (originating from the Stone-Campbell Reformation Movement of the 19th century), which she left after attending a college in Florida that is used as the sect’s choice for higher education. The college was part of a small percentage of Church of Christ groups that are on the spectrum for rigid and extremely hardline behavior that would be considered authoritarian in nature.

After receiving her BA in Communication from Florida College with a minor in Religious Studies, she relocated to Utah where she worked as a case manager for Holding Out HELP, a nonprofit organization devoted to providing pathways of independence to those who have left polygamy. Her passions include public speaking, intercultural communication studies, and educating others about cults. She continues to volunteer to mentor youth and assist in community initiatives to effect greater change in the Salt Lake Valley.