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Pat Merkley, who has shepherded and helped shape Utah's polygamy-focused Safety Net Committee, said Thursday she plans to step down at the end of June.

The clinical director "took it above and beyond anything I would have done," said Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office and Safety Net liaison. "I don't think people realize how many she's helped."

Merkley, 55, was hired as director nine years ago, when Attorney General Mark Shurtleff founded the committee. She'd already started a support group for women with fundamentalist Mormon connections after a few came to the domestic violence shelter where she was as a social worker.

"It's a hard thing to let go of for me," she said Thursday, but her husband's ophthalmologist job will relocate her to Texas. Over the years, she's helped thousands of people with therapy, case management, victims' services and more through Safety Net, Murphy said.

The aim of the committee is to make sure people from plural communities have access to education, justice and other services. (Though bigamy is a felony, Shurtleff aims instead at crimes like child abuse and underage marriage.)

Safety Net brings together polygamists, nonprofit workers and state employees for monthly meetings, publishes a primer about the state's various sects and hosts trainings about the culture.

While anti-polygamy activists have criticized the committee in the past for being soft on polygamy, in recent months fewer polygamists are attending following a series of spirited conversations about decriminalization.

Balancing those very different points of view has been the hardest part of the job, Merkley said.

"Sometimes it felt like it was impossible to please everybody," she said. About a year ago, she went to part-time to focus on therapy to people both in and out of polygamy, while former social worker Mike Leetham was hired as co-director to handle administrative duties.

The search for her replacement will begin shortly. Her case load is about 10 people a week, and two support groups a month and her part-time salary is about $25,000 a year.

Twitter: @lwhitehurst

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