Little help is available for teens leaving FLDS Church

Deseret Morning News/July 8, 2006
By Ben Winslow

Police in the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz., say they're seeing a number of teenagers who are fed up with the Fundamentalist LDS Church and leaving on their own.

The trouble is, they may not get much help leaving.

"One of the biggest problems that we have with the individuals that are wanting out is they're underage and there's not much we can do for them legally," said Gary Engels, a special investigator for the Mohave County Attorney's Office.

Engels said he is seeing people - mostly teenagers - who don't like living under the FLDS Church's increasingly restrictive doctrine.

"There are more people leaving this organization every day," Engels said. "A lot of them are wanting to leave willingly. They're finding the lifestyle they're trying to live under Warren's rules and regulations too restrictive."

Warren Jeffs is the fugitive leader of the FLDS Church. He is on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, facing criminal charges in Utah and Arizona accusing him of forcing teenage girls into polygamous marriages with older men. Federal prosecutors have charged him with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. A $100,000 reward is being offered for information leading to his arrest.

These teens are similar to the so-called "Lost Boys" who are kicked out of the border towns by Jeffs for unnamed "sins." After leaving the border towns, they crash in Hurricane and St. George. Some stay with relatives or people sympathetic to their plight.

However, service providers cannot help them because they're minors and runaways.

"We cannot harbor a runaway," said Shannon Price, the director of the Diversity Foundation which helps "Lost Boys."

The HOPE Organization, which helps people leaving polygamy, said its past experience with minor runaways from the border towns has not ended well.

"At HOPE, we follow the law and with a runaway we've got to call law enforcement and child and family services," said HOPE director Elaine Tyler. "With the last two we've dealt with they've gone right back to their parents."

Tyler said she knows of some people who are willing to shelter runaways and run the risk of criminal charges. She will not run that risk.

"I'm not going to be arrested for harboring a runaway," Tyler said.

Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith said he is sympathetic, but helping the children fleeing Hildale and Colorado City could lead to legal trouble.

"You've got to be careful in helping these people," he said. "Because if they are a minor and you contribute, you've got problems."

While most of the teenagers who leave the border towns are not reported as runaways because their polygamous families do not want to attract government attention, it still becomes problematic to deliver services.

"Fitting them into the services becomes the problem," Price said. "Our problem with getting services is that government - the way those statutes are set up - they need to have parent involvement. These kids are not going to involve their parents."

However, some government agencies are getting on board to help out.

In May, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signed HB30 into law. It allows 16-and-17-year-olds to petition the juvenile courts for emancipation from their parents. The bill was created to help homeless teens and Lost Boys of polygamy.

The Utah Attorney General's Office said HB30 is a good step to overcoming the problem.

"Part of the reason we asked the legislature to pass the emancipation bill is they could get services that they normally can't get because of their ages," said Utah Attorney General's spokesman Paul Murphy.

The Safe Passage grant, which has been used to help many people who want to get out of abusive situations within polygamous communities, does not help minors.

Tyler said many children are waiting until they're adults before coming to The HOPE Organization for help.

"Some have come to us after they've turned 18 and then we're able to help them. There was a girl who was living in a basement of another girl I was helping. She said 'I was living in rags and I couldn't tell you I was there,' " Tyler recalled. "It broke my heart."

The Utah Department of Human Services has been considering changing laws and policies to help children leaving polygamy. Last week, several state agencies met to talk about the problem. Spokesman Dwayne Baird said the problem is the legislature mandates what they can and cannot do.

"What we would like to do is get the legislature to broaden the scope of what we can do to help these kids," he said. "They're in dire need of assistance. Not just from state agencies but from entire communities."

Price said they need to move quickly to provide resources to teenagers leaving a closed society before they succumb to the temptations of the world.

"They will fit into the statutes when they're older, homeless and drug addicted," she said.

Engels said the way the laws are, police can't help the children who want to get out.

"I think law enforcement's hands are tied because of the laws.," he said.

"You're dealing with a unique situation and a unique place with the status of a runaway and the status of things out there," he said.

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