Life After FLDS: Former Members Fight for Child Custody After Leaving Polygamist Sect

ABC News Good Morning America 20/20/May 8, 2015

By Dan Harris, Harry Phillips, Carrie Cook, Alexa Valiente and Lauren Effron

Along the border between Utah and Arizona is a sort of alternate universe the locals call, "The Creek."

This is the home base of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which dominates the twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. Ancestors of the FLDS broke with the mainstream Mormon Church more than a century ago over the issue of polygamy.

Warren Jeffs is still allegedly in control of the church community despite the fact that he is serving a life sentence in Texas for the sexual assault of two girls, including a 12-year-old he counted among his more than 70 wives.

Under Jeffs, FLDS members follow strict rules, such as having no internet or television, and women are required to wear prairie dresses.

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A number of FLDS followers are no longer members of the community -- including Warren Jeffs's former sister-in-law Charlene Jeffs, Sabrina Broadbent and Ron Rohbock. But when they left, all said they were forced to leave their children behind because they believed the church would never allow them to take custody.

Once someone leaves the community, Broadbent said, they are ostracized.

"Someone leaving the community, it's like death to them," she said. "So once they leave, they’re cut off. They can never see those people again."

Watch the full story on ABC News' "20/20" TONIGHT at 10 p.m. ET.

Despite their struggles to extract their children from the grip of the FLDS, Charlene Jeffs, Broadbent and Rohbock remained optimistic about their futures outside of the community.

Here is what life has been like for the three former FLDS members since they left the church.

Charlene Jeffs

Charlene Jeffs was the most senior and first wife in the polygamous family of Warren Jeffs's brother and reputed top lieutenant, Lyle Jeffs. But she was banished from the FLDS, she said, because she complained.

 "I didn't know what I had complained about, but I was told that I had complained," Charlene Jeffs told "20/20."

Since she left, Charlene Jeffs said she argued with Lyle Jeffs over full custody of her two youngest children, posting copies of legal notices around her former home in the Creek, demanding a custody hearing.

"I have two children right now that are underage that I really want to get out of that. I want to get them all out of that because I don't believe what they’re teaching anymore,” Charlene Jeffs said.

On a visit to the local marshal’s office for a wellness check for her two youngest kids, marshals allowed her to see her 13-year-old daughter Suzie and 17-year-old son Amin.

“Suzie tried to fight on a hug, and I know it’s just cause of the teachings. And Amin just did a handshake. But Amin smiled, and I felt like it was a more sincere smile,” Charlene Jeffs said. “I know that they love me. They’re just confused.”

 Nine days later, Lyle Jeffs reluctantly gave up custody.

"So when [Lyle Jeffs] signed the papers that we had agreed on, he said that it was under protest to give me the custodial guardianship,” Charlene Jeffs said. “I really got a very good deal out of it for the children because it is for the children. The custody is for the children.”

Though she finally had custody of her two youngest children, Charlene Jeffs said her son Amin had a hard time after the custody handoff during a drive.

“[Amin] said, ‘What did we ever do? How did you do this to us?’ I said, ‘Amin, I haven’t done anything. I’m trying to protect you from things being done to you,’” Charlene Jeffs recalled. “And he said, ‘Why, why, why are you doing this?’ I said, ‘Amin, I promised your father I wouldn’t go there with you.’”

Eventually, Charlene Jeffs said things changed for the better.

“I knew that love will -- love conquers all. Love will do it. But every time we stopped again, he was very sweet and a lot more soft-spoken, a lot more the boy I know, and we carried on,” she said.

Charlene Jeffs said she still loves Lyle Jeffs and that she would go back to the church if things returned to the way they were when Lyle Jeffs’ father Rulon Jeffs, who led the FLDS before his son Warren Jeffs took over, was alive.

“I would go back in a heartbeat because I still love Lyle,” she said.

However, she said she feels like she’s come a long way since she left the FLDS.

“I feel like that I’ve been privileged enough to learn what really truly is being hidden from everybody,” said Charlene Jeffs.

 Sabrina Broadbent

Sabrina Broadbent left the group eight years ago, leaving her four children behind because she believed the church would make it impossible for her to win custody of them.

Since she left, Broadbent remarried, had a 3-year-old son with her new husband and kept in touch with her four other children, now ages 8 to 13.

After it became painfully obvious by Christmas 2014 that her FLDS children saw her as an evil outsider, Broadbent sought full custody. A judge awarded her legal custody of all four children on April 2, but she was met by dozens of members of the FLDS church when she went to pick them up.

A standoff with FLDS members that lasted more than 15 hours, but eventually Broadbent, her new husband and her brother were able to drive away with her children. However, Broadbent said, “It was a nightmare when we got home.”

“My eldest took a magic marker to my 60-inch screen TV that we just got and cut all the cords to the TV – to the dish,” Broadbent told “20/20.”

Broadbent said the four children even packed up their belongings and tried to run away at one point.

“They sat out on my front lawn with all their blankets and sat out there and cried … with their suitcases,” she said.

Eventually with the aid of television, video games, the purchase of a new puppy and lots of patience, Broadbent said her children began to come around.

“I’ve been combing the girls’ hair. I’ve been hugging them every night. They’ve been hugging me every morning – telling me good morning,” Broadbent said.

Though her children continue to swing between acceptance and resistance, Broadbent is determined to savor every little sign of a brighter future with them.

“They’re going to go back and forth, but you eventually become like the people you associate with, you know?”

 Ron Rohbock

Ron Rohbock said Warren Jeffs kicked him out of the church in 2002. At the time, he had seven wives and 50 children, all of whom he said were reassigned to another man after he was forced to leave.

Several months ago, the FBI called Rohbock and his current wife Geri Rohbock, a Las Vegas psychologist who’s never been a part of the church.

“They said that they had eyes on this trailer, and there was a young girl living in it and had been doing so for months. And they believed that it was my daughter,” Ron Rohbock told “20/20.”

The FBI agent, he said, told him a neighbor who lived near the trailer called in a tip. Ron Rohbock believes his daughter Sherilyn, whom he hadn’t seen in 12 years, was allegedly held in the trailer to repent. Sherilyn had been living with her uncle Lyle Jeffs, the same man Charlene Jeffs had been married to, the Rohbocks said.

“She wasn’t going to school. She wasn’t doing anything that legally she shouldn’t have been doing. She didn’t have running water to the trailer,” said Ron Rohbock.

 Sherilyn was taken into custody by the FBI, and after the call from the agent, Ron and Geri Rohbock said they wanted to bring Sherilyn to their home. On the advice of a lawyer, the Rohbocks secretly took Sherilyn out of Colorado City and went on a week-long road trip to California to buy time for a judge to grant them legal custody.

They said they visited a restaurant and spent time at the beach, in what seemed like the successful first steps toward a new family life for Sherilyn.

However, when they headed home to Arizona, they noticed Sherilyn was writing indecipherable scribbles in a journal and she became concerned when they talked about skipping a planned stop to pick up wine. So, at her insistence, they stopped at a liquor store where they had been a few days earlier.

“Sherilyn’s sitting in the vehicle, okay. She didn’t want to get out. And so I walked around to her side of the car, and at that very minute, the truck pulls up -- she jumps out of the car,” Ron Rohbock said. “They grab her. She’s in the car, in the truck, and they’re gone.”

The Rohbocks have no doubt that Sherilyn somehow tipped off the FLDS and helped set up a snatch-back. They say they don’t know where she is now, and they never gained full custody of Sherilyn.

“My personal belief is that she’s right over here in Lyle’s complex – or what they call ‘the Block,’” Ron Rohbock said. “I helped build that property. You know how many secret hiding places there are in that place?”

Though he said he lost an opportunity to rescue his daughter from a grim future, Ron Rohbock has taken an optimistic view of the changes he sees taking place in the Colorado City.

“As far as I am concerned, given ten years, it’s going to normalize to some degree,” said Ron Rohbock.

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