More young people leaving polygamous sect, aid workers say

The Salt Lake Tribune/September 10, 2011

Aid organizations say they are seeing more young people, especially young men, leaving or being asked to leave the polygamous sect led by Warren Jeffs.

“We’re seeing quite an influx,” said Tonia Tewell, executive director of Salt Lake City-based Holding out Help, which provides housing and other aid to people leaving polygamous communities, including the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. “There is no room for the youth to go whatsoever.”

Speaking during a Safety Net meeting last week, Tewell said she’s seen a bump since the beginning of this year, shortly after Jeffs was extradited to Texas to face sexual assault of a child charges. From a pay phone in his jail cell, Jeffs excommunicated dozens of men and put new restrictions on the behavior of other members, like a ban on Internet usage, former members have said.

Those who stayed in the community redoubled their efforts to become “pure” and increase their faith to free their leader. That’s resulted in more young people chafing against the new rules or being asked to leave the community if they don’t follow along, Tewell said. She’s getting a few new people seeking help every week, and her organization now serves about 150 people.

Crises like the current ones — Jeffs being sentenced to life in prison after his conviction and a power struggle with a rival prophet — don’t usually make droves of people leave the FLDS, said Shannon Price, director of the Diversity Foundation. The sect has about 10,000 members based along the Utah-Arizona border.

“How many crises has this community gone through?” she said. “All crises do is bring people who are very devout closer together.”

Alhough the current turmoil hasn’t caused a bump in the numbers at her organization, which serves more than 400 young former FLDS members sometimes know as “Lost Boys,” Diversity’s numbers have been steadily increasing during the past several years, she said. So far this year, they’ve started helping 10 additional students with their college degrees.

While older, more established FLDS members with families may be more likely to band together, younger people with fewer bonds have less reason to stay, she said.

But they often have fewer tools to survive. While middle-aged FLDS people grew up during a time when members often went to public school and got college degrees, younger members have lived in a more closed, isolated community — FLDS children have not attended public school for 10 years, since Jeffs ordered them to leave in 2000.

“There’s usually a delayed maturity,” Price said. Because their upbringing has been so different from other American teenagers, typical homeless shelters don’t work, Tewell said.

“They’re still so different than the general population, I just think it would be a disaster,” she said. Many who left or have been forced out have arrest records, such as for drinking alcohol or scrawling graffiti.

Joni Holm, who gives support to about 50 people leaving the FLDS with the Child Protection Project, also said that host families who take in those kids need to know how to help them.

“We need to get a very strong mentoring program to teach these host families what is needed ... [so they can understand] the dynamic of what they’re coming from,” she said.

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