Freed from Bountiful: a mother wins a battle

The Vancouver Sun/June 7, 2008

Over the past two weeks in two different countries and in very different circumstances, two sisters regained custody of their children. Those children now face vastly different futures.

One set of cousins was returned to their mother after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the state had improperly seized more than 450 children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' walled compound in west Texas.

They will grow up within in a reclusive, polygamous sect where toys, television and books are banned and where church, not family, comes first.

The other cousins have been set free from its strictures. Their mother, Teressa Wall, got full and permanent custody after her estranged husband agreed to a negotiated settlement that was approved by the B.C. Supreme Court.

Teressa's son and two daughters will only go back to the FLDS community in Bountiful, B.C., for short visits with their father and only if they want to.

Last September in Utah, Teressa helped put FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs in jail. She testified that Jeffs could have stopped the "spiritual marriage" of her 14-year-old sister, Elissa, to their 19-year-old first cousin. But Jeffs didn't and Allen Steed subsequently raped Elissa.

Jeffs is now serving two consecutive terms of five years to life in Utah for being an accomplice to rape and is awaiting trial in Arizona on similar charges.

Before Teressa testified, her estranged husband never opposed her taking the children with her to Idaho, not even when a U.S. border officer phoned to make sure that Teressa was not abducting them.

But within weeks of her testimony, Roy Blackmore filed for divorce and full custody. It was clearly retribution. It pitted her bank teller's wage against the church's treasury.

Teressa braced for a trial and the prospect of her legal costs in excess of $50,000. Then as the Texas custody battle was at its height, Blackmore offered to settle.

"He just caved. I'm just filing the final papers and it should all be finished in a matter of a few weeks," Teressa said last week. "It's so amazing. It's taken a huge load off me."

Even so, she's rung up a legal bill of $12,000 and still owes nearly half of that.

But there was no way Teressa was backing down. There was too much at stake.

She was terrified that her daughters might be forced into "spiritual marriages" at 14 like Elissa was. She was frightened that they'd become "poofers," disappearing without a trace into one of many FLDS compounds as her mother and two younger sisters have.

She had nightmares that if they went back, some day Jeffs might order them all to drink poison so that they could be "lifted up" to heaven.

Yet part of the negotiated settlement is that the children -- their eight-year-old son and two girls, aged nine and five -- will spend several weeks each year in British Columbia with Blackmore.

It was a hard decision.

"I didn't want to be the Big Bad Mom who totally denied them access to their Dad," she says. Besides, she wants them to see the reality of Bountiful for themselves.

In Idaho, they live in a three-bedroom house with a yard. In Bountiful, they squeezed into a single bedroom.

"One of the rooms we lived in was so small we could barely fit a queen-size bed into it," she said in a sworn affidavit. "There was no room for a dresser or even a bed for the children."

In another affidavit, her friend and cousin by marriage, Suzanne Blackmore, described Teressa's living conditions in Bountiful as "deplorable."

"They were living in a tent for a time," Suzanne said. "From my observation, Roy was not a very good provider for his family. That is not to say that he did not work hard. He definitely worked hard. However, he was content to have the extra money that he earned go to the church rather than to his family."

Several affidavits noted that, like most FLDS men, Roy was rarely home except on weekends.

Teressa and others were also highly critical of the schooling that focuses mainly on religion and is done mostly at home even though the B.C. government funds and accredits Bountiful elementary-secondary school.

"It is absolutely true that the children are home-schooled part of the time," Teressa says in her affidavit. "Yes, it [the school] may be approved by the B.C. government, but I am sure it is only approved if the schooling is actually happening at home and the children are getting the assistance and guidance they need."

In response to the Texas raid, the FLDS posted information on a website that gives hour-by-hour descriptions of children's daily lives.

Children get up at 5 a.m., dress, say their prayers and "read or listen to a few good words read from a religious book" before gathering with other family members at 6 a.m. for prayers, hymn singing and a reading from one of the FLDS prophets.

Breakfast is at 6:30. School starts at 7:30.

"Breathless, smiling children file into the school house about 10 minutes before starting time," it says.

First up is an hour of religious instruction during which the principal often calls on teachers and students to "stand up and bear testimony of what they believe. Freedom of speech is honoured in our society."

After that, there are classes in "English, math, spelling, history, reading, writing, phonics, crafts, sewing, singing, horticulture, etc. Teachers and parents have worked hard to put together a curriculum that will meet the standards of our religion."

Even preschoolers have to do chores. "Children who are just learning to walk love to help wash doorknobs, benches, cupboards, etc. . . . We do not give our children dolls, yet if the children act or pretend that they have a baby, that is fine; it is the natural instinct of a child," says the daily schedule for children under two.

There are more prayers and hymns in the afternoon and evening.

There are stories before bedtime, but as in school, the only ones allowed are from the Bible, Book of Mormon or from the fundamentalist prophets. Because fables, fairy tales or "other untrue stories" are forbidden, "[t]hey seldom have bad or frightful dreams, just sweet dreams of a happy family living together."

It doesn't say whether children dream of fathers. In fact, there are no references to fathers at all in the children's schedules.

Of course, the FLDS is silent on the most shocking reality of FLDS life -- forced marriages of under-aged girls.

But the Texas child protection services was not. Among other evidence, it filed photos of a then 50-year-old Jeffs with two young girls -- his "celestial brides." One was 12, the other -- Teressa's cousin -- was scarcely older.

It was not enough to keep some mothers' daughters safe. But at least Teressa Wall knows that she has done all she can for hers.

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